Truth Machines

The Truth Machines: Policing, Violence, and Scientific Interrogations in India, by Jinee Lokaneeta (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2020)

Reviewed by Mark Fathi Massoud, University of California, Santa Cruz


How do police get witnesses and criminal defendants to tell the truth? And in what ways do the truth-seeking activities of law enforcement create and remake the identity of the state? These questions lie at the heart of Jinee Lokaneeta’s fine book, The Truth Machines. For anthropologists of law and politics, the book offers a lens into the ways that nations try to prevent the torture of citizens, paradoxically by promoting a different kind of torture. It is a story of how state officials move torture from dusty police interrogation rooms into futuristic forensic laboratories and hospitals.

Lokaneeta conducted archival and interview-based research in five Indian cities: Hyderabad, Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, and Ahmedabad. She had access not only to lawyers and human rights activists in these places but also to police officers and the forensic psychologists who work with them to conduct interrogations. Many of these persons, the book recounts, were happy to talk with Lokaneeta because they felt that their work was a scientific and human rights-oriented response to torture.

Historically in these cities, as in many other parts of the world, some people have died in police custody because of physical abuse or neglect during so-called third-degree interrogations. To help prevent the deaths of persons held in police custody, Indian officials since the early 2000s have been trying to remake the image of the police. They have begun referring to police torture as a vestige of colonial rule. In the effort to remake the police as modern, they have also looked to science. Police have been asking people in interrogations to submit to various brain tests to provide scientific evidence for use in court. These include lie detector tests and, once critiques grew of lie detectors’ accuracy, brain scans and narcoanalysis (p. 89). Narcoanalysis is the injection of brain-altering chemicals like Sodium Penothal. Interrogations are thus being conducted on people who are partially conscious (p. 150). Lokaneeta labels these invasive technologies collectively as India’s “truth machines,” a form of legal violence on the brain that the police officers and forensic psychologists she met explained were designed and used precisely to prevent custodial physical torture (p. 3).

Most fascinating about Lokaneeta’s account is that these technologies arose in part out of state officials’ stated desire to promote human rights. Custodial deaths and police brutality had also led to low levels of public trust in the police and, by extension, the state (p. 4, 6). That is, the machines were billed as a more humane way to ensure truth-telling. Interrogators whom Lokaneeta interviewed had even encouraged her to try out a “narco test” for herself (p. 7). She tells readers that she submitted to a less invasive voice analyzer test instead.

Truth machines emerged across India in the 1990s and 2000s not to perpetuate state violence. Instead, forensic psychologists presented themselves to the public as “practitioners of therapeutic arts who used science [and] were distinct form the police” (p. 17). Physical torture, however, often continued alongside narcoanalysis, which meant that custodial torture moved out of city police stations and into scientific and medical laboratories.

The book is organized succinctly. In addition to the pithy introduction and conclusion that draw on and challenge Weberian social theory, the book has five main chapters. Each of these chapters is policy relevant and theoretically anchored, which gives them interdisciplinary appeal. Chapter 2 discusses the emergence of the truth machines in India through a growing discourse of modernization – to separate the present Indian postcolonial nation from the past colony. Chapter 3 shows how the historical origins of India’s truth machines are not in science but in culture and politics, including a peculiarly American origin story.

Chapter 4 zeroes in on the forensic psychologists themselves, whom Lokaneeta labels as a group of “cyborgs” (half-human, half-machine) “reinforcing the structure of Indian policing” (p. 79). In a parallel to the professionalization of lawyers, forensic psychologists “reclaimed their place” (p. 97) in India’s modernization discourse by making themselves part of the justice system. They “considered themselves … separate from the police (p. 107) even though they benefitted professionally from their regular, side-by-side work with the police. Their status as insiders and outsiders created the state’s “forensic architecture” (p. 106).

Chapters 5 and 6 focus attention on the law. Lokaneeta examines how Indian courts promoted the state’s modernization discourse to distance colonial forms of violence like police torture from the postcolonial advances like truth machines. Lokaneeta here provides a theoretical critique of bureaucracy and the rule of law that together form a “scaffold that relies on procedures to mask violence (p. 19).

Lokaneeta, a political scientist, confronts a central assumption of that discipline that the state is a monolithic entity that holds a monopoly on violence. Instead, she advances a different notion of an ongoing contingent state, which means that multiple sites of interaction – in law and in science, in police stations and in hospitals, among law enforcement and among psychologists – create the state’s identity and, ultimately, expand state violence rather than limit it.

That is, state-sponsored programs designed to stop torture may end up having disturbing parallels to torture. The state seems unable to get around this dilemma, and so it rationalizes what is essentially a different form of torture in a different bureaucratic space. This is a sobering analysis of the prized ideals of democracy and the rule of law. Lokaneeta wants readers to see that the truth machines, shocking as they may be to readers, expose the ways that state officials are trying to limit state power and stymie the state’s violent edge. If readers accept that the rule of law sets limits to arbitrary state power, then readers will surely be further unsettled when they learn that torture of one kind or another is part of the rule of law. Whether it is essential to the making of the rule of law, or a byproduct, remains to be studied.

Lokaneeta writes with the legibility and sensibility of a legal ethnographer, including by providing grounded details to illuminate broader scholarly interventions. In elucidating the conflicting commitments of the rule of law – simultaneously limiting police power while promoting it –  The Truth Machines is a welcome addition to the anthropology of law, human rights, and policing.

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