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'Physical torture remains the main form of interrogation'

By JYOTI PUNWANI
Last updated on: November 19, 2021 10:44 IST
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'One police officer told me that trials take forever, conviction rates are low.'
'So one way to judge states' performance on handling crime is through the 'recovery rate' of their police.'
'The fastest way to get recovery is by torturing the accused.'

Illustration: Dominic Xavier/Rediff.com

Why is police torture so commonplace in India? Have scientific methods of interrogation worked?

These and other questions are dealt with in The Truth Machines: Policing, Violence, and Scientific Interrogations in India, Professor Jinee Lokaneeta's latest book which is co-winner of the prestigious C Herman Pritchett Award, given annually by the American Political Science Association.

"Police have always been extremely nervous about deaths in custody," Lokaneeta, below -- the India-born professor, who is Chair of Political Science and International Relations at Drew University, Madison, New Jersey -- tells Rediff.com's Senior Contributor Jyoti Punwani. The first of a multi-part interview:

 

What do you mean by 'Truth Machines'?

'Truth Machines' refer to the three scientific techniques of interrogation -- one of which has been there since the 1960s -- but which collectively came into the limelight in the late 1990s and early 2000s in India: Lie detectors, brain scans and narco analysis. Suddenly, they were being used everywhere: In the Telgi scam, the Aarushi murder, and the 2006 Mumbai bomb blasts.

One reason for this I suggest is that it was important to show that a 'technological' solution to custodial violence existed. This was the 1990s: The NHRC (National Human Rights Commission) had just been formed, the D K Basu judgment had been delivered (on guidelines to be followed for arrest and detention). Civil liberties and democratic rights groups had been active through the 1980s.

All of this came together and the need was felt to come up with a way to show that the issue of custodial violence was being addressed. These 'truth machines' were seen to be able to extract the truth out of people through the help of science and expertise. They were seen as a quick solution to torture.

Even the ministry of home affairs began to emphasise these techniques.

Did they work in the way they were projected?

No. These techniques have always been challenged. In the US, research in the 1930s and 1940s showed that neither lie detectors nor narco analysis helped get to the truth.

There was another flaw in them: They were inherently coercive. That's why medical ethics scholars such as Dr Amar Jesani called narco analysis 'pharmacological torture'. They were invasive techniques which went against the central tenet of the legal system: voluntariness. They created another site for getting information coercively.

Why then did they become so popular?

One reason was the recognition that third degree was commonly used.

Police have always been extremely nervous about deaths in custody. They've always given some excuse for a dead body in custody -- suicide, escape, illness ... Truth machines were seen as a way to continue to use torture and coercion and yet not have the liability.

But while lauding these scientific techniques, popular culture and even the courts did not recognise that even in cases where narco analysis was being used, physical torture continued.

Ultimately, narco analysis was used only in a fraction of cases, and ended up playing only a symbolic role -- to show that interrogation can take place without torture, in medical contexts under the supervision of doctors. Occasionally even the accused felt this was a better option.

Even though it didn't work, the emphasis given to it showed how the State was forced to negotiate its relationship with legal violence.

From 2000 to 2010, forensic psychologists became important figures. My interviews with police, lawyers, activists and forensic psychologists across five states showed that they were seen as independent. They were trying to prove their own role in contributing to legal investigation. They saw themselves as using their training to play almost a therapeutic role, helping the person being interrogated.

There was a shift -- they were saying 'We are not the police, so we cannot use physical torture. We are responsible to see that the person is not injured.'

The State also started setting up labs; a forensic science university came up in Gandhinagar. The claim was that we are now more modern and humane.

What wasn't said was that even through these techniques, you end up recreating the basic problem with torture: you force a body to give information involuntarily.

Why then did this craze fade away?

In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that these techniques could not be used without consent, and that evidence got from them could not be admissible. Immediately, the State's efforts to popularise them went down.

However, the emphasis has not disappeared. Recently the Delhi high court asked why there was no narco analysis facility in Delhi and forced the Delhi government to set up one. This is something that's been rejected all over the world!

But even now, it has only a symbolic impact. For instance, in the hit-and-run case which killed a judge in Dhanbad recently, it was suggested that narco analysis be tried out. They weren't getting anywhere, so this was seen as a magic bullet that could help solve the case even when everyone knew it wouldn't.

When the Hathras case happened, the UP government suggested that narco analysis be done of everybody involved.

The fact that this technique has not disappeared means that confessions remain the primary mode of investigation in India.

And physical torture remains the main form of interrogation?

Yes, for many reasons.

One is that even within the law, there are incentives for this. Look at the importance given to recovery (of stolen goods, weapons, dead bodies.) It's the one exception to non-admissibility of evidence extracted from the accused while in custody.

One police officer told me that trials take forever, conviction rates are low. So one way to judge states' performance on handling crime is through the 'recovery rate' of their police. The fastest way to get recovery is by torturing the accused.

As the officer said, the magistrate knows this, those complaining about torture know it too.

If you allow recovery to be such an important part of the legal process, it means the law itself enables torture.

The same applies to the rule that an accused must be produced before a magistrate within 24 hours of arrest. So, officers told me, they have very little time to get information -- though we know that torture is not used only to get information but also as a form of punishment.

So what is meant to be an important safeguard against torture is being used as an excuse to torture. The reality, of course, is that even this safeguard is not followed -- there is often a difference between when a person is detained and when the detention is recorded.

In the discussions on torture, these conditions which allow it are not addressed.

Till the 1990s, there was not even any discussion on the fact that methods of interrogation were not part of police training. To think that there could be no training on how to avoid torture is remarkable.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com

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