Book Cover of The Truth Machines

Prof. Lokaneeta responds to the Reviews of The Truth Machines

(In this conclusion to our blog round-table book discussion, Professor Jinee Lokaneeta writes a response to the reviews for The Truth Machines: Policing, Violence, and Scientific Interrogations in India. The introduction by Prof. Rohit De is here, which was followed by reviews from Abhinav Sekhri, Sanatana Khanikar, Pooja Satyogi and Tasneem Deo)

I thank Rohit De for putting together this incredible group of scholars to engage with The Truth Machines. I also appreciate De’s continual efforts to create conversations in various forums. I am also thankful to Law and Other Things, a blog that I have long appreciated, for hosting this book discussion. I am grateful for the generosity of Tasneem Deo, Santana Khanikar, Pooja Satyogi and Abhinav Sekhri for taking the time to read The Truth Machines in this strange summer of the Pandemic and brilliantly and thoughtfully engaging with the text. I write this response with the hope of continuing conversations with all of you.

The urgency of focusing on state power and legal violence has never been more visible than in the recent police killings of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, who was choked to death in public in Minneapolis, US; and Jayaraj and Bennix who were the subject of horrific custodial torture and deaths in a Tamil Nadu police station. We have also witnessed the merciless police beatings of migrants during the lockdown in India. The arrests of activists under the extraordinary law- Unlawful Activities Prevention Act and the overcrowding of jails in the midst of a pandemic have further made conditions inhuman and torturous. The impunity towards encounters or extrajudicial killings, excessive firing, use of pellets, and brute force in response to dissent and movements continue unabated. The Truth Machines only focuses on one of the sites of state violence -investigations and interrogations- ensconced with some formal safeguards that continues to be a site of police violence and torture.

The book analyzes police practices that appear to be occurring at margins – use of lie detectors, brain scans and naroanalysis or truth serums in a few forensic science labs- as symptomatic of how state manages its own violence. Rather than finding intentionality in the development of techniques, the truth machines emerged more contingently. The state attempted to incorporate those techniques into what I call the State Forensic Architecture in response to the critiques of the human rights movements against custodial violence in the 1990s/2000s.

Sekhri helps situate the Truth Machines in an entrenched practice of confessions in India. As he rightly notes, this arena is actually more protected than others. For instance, the Indian police are not allowed to record confessions (except under certain extraordinary laws such as TADA, POTA and MCOCA by senior police officers) and yet confessions and information as a result of a body’s own betrayal remains a major source of emphasis for the state/police. As Sekhri notes “The desperation caused by these brutish, and brutal, modes of investigation to secure the elusive confession has often led to an almost messianic belief in the concept of “scientific investigations.” It is this messianic belief in the “scientific investigations” that of course leads to inadequate scrutiny of truth machines even by the Supreme Court.

As a practitioner and commentator of the legal system, Sekhri brings up an important point about whether it is possible to ask the courts to disavow any methods as scientific if they try to utilize the person to be a source of evidence. Chapters 3 and 4 in my book indicate the constant desire to innovate with techniques that force the body and mind to betray – in lie detector the body’s physical indicators supposedly give you away, in brain scans, brain signals reveal whether you have experiential knowledge of the crime, and in narcoanalysis the drug ostensibly takes away your ability to lie. Yet despite the deeply coercive nature of the techniques, the Supreme Court just focused on the lack of consent and inadmissibility of evidence in 2010 while recognizing that the techniques could be used by consent. A recognition that the desire to extract confessions that enable torture uphold the truth machines – with the help of doctors/experts/forensic psychologists – would have gone a long way in demystifying the myth of scientific investigations and dissuaded continued efforts to develop more truth machines.

Sekhri’s also observes, “In India’s purportedly adversarial system of criminal justice, however, defence lawyers barely play a role during an investigative process.”  Having always been influenced by the activist lawyers, I was greatly enamored by their insights during my interviews and was also struck by the lack of transparency in the system where they would often not be given the rights that Sekhri talks about. I recall two past conversations:  When an entire group of lawyers in Ahmedabad were surprised when I asked them why torture wasn’t taken up as an explicit issue in criminal cases. They explained that torture was so normalized that it seemed futile to explicitly challenge the practice as lawyers. A lawyer from Chattisgarh who tried to raise torture in routine cases faced obstacles at every level – trying to get access to the client, to getting a medical exam and protecting the clients from police pressure. Thus, Sekhri’s reading definitely makes me ponder on the need to articulate the rights and duties of defense lawyers in safeguarding constitutional protections in India.  

Santana Khanikar’s engagement with Truth Machines as a fellow political scientist, and political theorist deeply interested in questions of state violence and policing is a part of our continued conversations.  Based especially on insights from her important book State, Violence and Legitimacy in India relying on rich ethnographic work on police stations in Delhi and army/paramilitary in Assam, she points to resonances between our works in the context of the “scaffold of the rule of law” that I note in Chapter 6. The technically perfect daily diaries in police stations that she examines are indeed a great example of the scaffolding effort that goes into concealing the violence in both routine and extraordinary contexts.

In relation to my argument about the pastoral role of the police that mediates the repressive such that custodial deaths raise concerns of police liability, Khanikar notes: “In this discourse, of calculating policemen and their preference for ‘truth machines’, there is no scope for torturing without apparent need of information.”  Khanikar is absolutely right to point out that police violence may not be just an intentional/calculated move. Similarly torture is never contained only in the narrative of confessions in investigations though that is my book’s focus point. However, confession can often be the excuse to use torture even when the motive is to actually punish and be discriminatory. I am always unsure about torture being linked to “irrationality or whims” especially when they occur more systemically. I would also add that authorized discretionary power of using violence (limits of which are unclear) in the context of interrogations may enable the police to use violence to discriminate or punish as well. Finally, when I see both the police and Abdul Wahid Shaikh (only person acquitted in the Mumbai blast case and author of Begunah Qaidi) emphasize the police fear of custodial death, it is actually in the rationality of such an argument that the possibility of a shift, crack or resistance can actually take place or be imagined.

Pooja Satyogi’s engagement as a Cultural Anthropologist, Political Scientist, with her own fascinating fieldwork on the Special Protection Unit for Women and Children (Unit/Cell), Delhi focuses on some of the conceptual categories of the book. Satyogi’s point that Foucault’s conception on the pastoral and repressive power could have been more developed is well taken. I must clarify here that the relationship between pastoral and the repressive does get transformed while analyzing the relationship between police and violence as opposed to understanding police more generally that she suggests. That police are the authorized agents of violence is the framing under which I discuss the limited way in which the repressive is mediated by the pastoral. To that extent, for that section, its not Foucault but Mark Dubber’s work I draw from in relation to the question of how much violence is considered excessive to make the police fearful of severe injuries or custodial deaths.

Satyogi also thinks through other conceptual categories such as Semi-State Actors and Cyborgs. I think Satyogi is absolutely right about the need to expand both the categories as they work in the text and I thank her for ways of developing those categories further. For now, let me briefly explain how the categories currently work in the book. 

In Chapter 4, I unravel the State Forensic Architecture attempted in the 1990s-2000s with the truth machines drawing from the contingent efforts of individual forensic psychologists. The difficulty in defining forensic psychologists was precisely the ambiguous position that these individuals have. Semi State actors is a reference to their employment status (Ministry of Home Affairs, or police or at times private labs, research institutes) and the positional ambiguity that allowed them to be less visible until they try to gain legitimacy within the State Forensic Architecture that then fails to come into being. Similarly, the idea of the cyborgs (with a nod to  “poaching” of a term in the sense Michel de Certeau talks about), the idea was to literally illustrate the merging of human and the machine. I note how the forensic psychologists define themselves as separate from the police, working away from the dreaded police custody and emphasize their therapeutic art. But the need to merge with the machines comes into being as they are defined by their marginality even in the forensic science labs where other experts are considered scientists (serologist, DNA expert) and the forensic psychologists are seen as subjective. Hence, forensic psychologists tried to de-emphasize the subjective and highlight the capabilities of the machines they merely were a part of. This merging of the human and machine seemed so successful at times that a Delhi High Court in January 2019 demanded the installation of a “Narco Test Machine” at that moment forgetting that there is no machine in narcoanalysis, it is merely the use of a drug by a forensic psychologist. Cyborg then reflects a popular and legal conception of this merging of machine and practitioner perpetuating a myth of scientific investigations.

Finally, I turn to Tasneem Deo’s wonderful post on the Truth Machines that she notes is an attempt to “also build upon it using a diverse set of analytical tools.” Deo turns to an important literature on police culture which she defined as- “Emerging from ethnographic studies of routine police work, the concept of police culture includes “generalized rationales and beliefs” and “accepted practices, rules, and principles of conduct that are situationally applied.”

I really find it fascinating to think of how understandings of the Indian police and the truth machines would engage with the vast literature on police culture that Deo very creatively applies as a criminologist, and practitioner in the field of criminal justice reform. Deo points to the questioning of the monolithic nature of the police by focusing our attention on sub cultures and the hierarchies within the police; the role of the interpretive and discretionary role of the police in violation of rules. The apparent impossibility of reform in the absence of a change in habitus (drawing from Bourdieu) and of recognizing the difficult conditions under which the police work are all themes that help connect the police culture literature to the book. Deo’s post makes me think about paying more attention to police culture. I also think that conversations on police and policing have to be in relation to other political institutions, courts, forensic science labs (others) since occasionally it is the lack of such connections across different institutions that leads to an exclusive focus on the police. In the process, the conditions that contribute towards everyday practices within police culture from other institutions gets less focused.

Police has to be studied as a central problem of democracies and as a site of state power in the current context. George Floyd’s killing in the US six years after Eric Garner was similarly choked to death by the police, has once again put police violence, and police as an institution at the center of debates. The public syllabi on prison and police abolition in the US that are being circulated reflect a more consistent focus on making state violence a central problem of American democracy, constitutional law and the legal system than existed earlier and the racialized and gendered nature of such violence. In the Indian context, we have to similarly ask whether there appears to be a gap between the meticulous and analytical fact finding reports of civil liberty and democratic rights groups on state violence against the marginalized and the academic scholarship. Veena Das wrote in a recent essay engaging with Abdul Wahid Shaikh’s book asking Anthropology to be open to reading such accounts in creating a critique of democracy. Books by Shaikh and those who have experienced the rule of law (such as Framed by Mohammad Aamir Khan, Colors of a Cage by Arun Ferreira, and Do You Remember Kunan Pushpora by Essar Batul et al) pose similar questions to all scholars. In Truth Machines I suggest that “Whereas violence has been richly theorized and the state much studied, [there is a need for] State Violence Studies [SVS] that specifies the bodies targeted at sites of state power and the need to understand mechanisms of state violence in liberal democracies or rule of law.” It is only when scholars of state, democracy, rule of law, social movements, constitutional law, and historians engage with torture, police violence, and state violence as central to or intersecting with their objects of inquiry, that a more substantive conversation and a path forward can emerge and I am honored to be a part of such conversations.

Written by
Jinee Lokaneeta
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