The brutal killing and alleged gangrape of a 19-year-old Dalit woman in Hathras, Uttar Pradesh, has renewed attention on how narcoanalysis remains central to policing in India. Widespread outrage erupted as the police initially considered it a case of murder and later sought to deny the rape. The Uttar Pradesh government announced on October 2 its intent to use narcoanalysis on the victim’s family, the accused and negligent state officials. Narcoanalysis is the use of a drug — sodium pentothal — on a person to ostensibly induce truth with the help of forensic psychologists. The lack of validity and reliability of narcoanalysis is well known, though rarely acknowledged.
The notification of this desire to use narcoanalysis despite disavowal by the scientific community is not just about the technique itself. It is symptomatic of the investigative practices of Indian policing. Narcoanalysis functions to create a public spectacle of “truth claiming” in the garb of science, thereby reinforcing the role that coerced confessions play in media trials and the legal system. In the Hathras case, it further victimises the Dalit woman’s family by publicly contesting their version.
Popularised in the US in the 1920-30s by Dr Robert House, the US criminal justice system had a brief fascination with narcoanalysis. It was rejected by the CIA after experiments in the 1950s, and it continues to make rare appearances. The Indian fascination with narcoanalysis began in the late 1980s in Ahmedabad, appeared in complaints to the National Human Rights Commission about lie detectors being used alongside a drug in the 1990s, but gained prominence in the 2000s. Almost all major cases involved its use, including the Aarushi-Hemraj murders in 2008, Mumbai blast case in 2006, Telgi scam case, and Nithari 2005-2006, with videos often leaked as “truth”.
In 2010 the Indian Supreme Court ruled that consent was required for the use of narcoanalysis, lie detectors and brain scans and made evidence as a result of the techniques inadmissible. The Court stopped short of striking them down as inherently unacceptable under the right against self-incrimination (Article 20 (3)) and right to life and liberty (Article 21) of the Indian Constitution. The lack of a decisive rejection of narcoanalysis that medical ethics scholar Amar Jesani calls pharmacological torture has allowed the spectre of this technique to haunt different sites of policing in India, in turn encouraging coerced information or involuntary confessions.
Narcoanalysis (alongside brain scans and lie detectors, that I term “truth machines” in my book) is represented often as a scientific solution to police torture. Reports of custodial violence in Maharashtra resulted in senior police officers sending out a memo urging the use of truth machines. The Delhi High Court has recently asked the Delhi Government about the lack of narco test facility in the capital and the suspects are taken to Ahmedabad for narcoanalysis. Recently, the Aam Aadmi Party Government has promised the High Court that arrangements have been made to set up this narco facility, as if it is a state of the art technique rather than a coercive and unreliable medico-legal one.
By mentioning the use of narcoanalysis on the accused, the victim’s family and the police/officials, the UP Government is inviting a public/media trial which utilises science in its popular construction and will inevitably favour those who are dominant in society. As Dalit feminists have noted, provisions of the Prevention of Atrocities Act have to be central in the Hathras case against the upper caste men involved in the alleged gang rape and those state officials who were negligent in their duty. While a media trial is already visible, and medico-legal evidence of rape is already subject to manipulation, mention of narco is notable since it stands in for the voice of science and the expert claimed by the government to proclaim truth even as the technique is rejected by the scientific community.
The discussion on narco often tends to reinforce the legitimacy of techniques that coerce information from the bodies of the persons, sometimes in conjunction with torture or through a process of hypnotic suggestions. These tests are by themselves coercive and often used to get confessions/information in the investigative process itself and, like physical torture, are unreliable. Thus, each time narcoanalysis is mentioned in a high-profile case, it reactivates a tendency of Indian policing to precisely highlight techniques that force the body to betray itself. The popular campaign to challenge the trial court verdict in the Aarushi-Hemraj case had similarly highlighted the narco results of Hemraj’s friends as a way to strengthen their arguments, thereby contributing to the relegitimising of these techniques.
The Hathras case, in highlighting narcoanalysis, reminds us how confessions/information are often a part of a media trial, and techniques that enable the body to forcibly betray itself are violative of human dignity and should be disallowed. Asking the victim’s family to undergo narcoanalysis in a context where Dalit victims are often disbelieved is primarily meant to contest or proclaim their narratives publicly as a lie — victimising them once again. Saying that police/officials are to be subject to the same technique is reflective of a desire to restrict the negligence to a few bad apples — as opposed to the recognition of a systemic injustice, making justice in this case even more elusive.
This article first appeared in the print edition on October 19 under the title “Hathras and truth machine”. The writer is Professor in Political Science & International Relations at Drew University. She is author of The Truth Machines: Policing, Violence and Scientific Interrogations in India (Univ of Michigan Press, Orient Blackswan, 2020)
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