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The lie of the land

From one liar to another, let me be honest with you. I’m not comfortable at all with the Supreme Court’s ruling on May 5 that prohibits the non-voluntary use of narco-tests and brain-mapping on criminal suspects, writes Indrajit Hazra.

india Updated: May 15, 2010 21:55 IST
Indrajit Hazra
Indrajit Hazra
Hindustan Times

From one liar to another, let me be honest with you. I’m not comfortable at all with the Supreme Court’s ruling on May 5 that prohibits the non-voluntary use of narco-tests and brain-mapping on criminal suspects. I’ve had some time to think about this and I’ve heard people whose opinions I (usually) respect come out in favour of the order. But I’m not satisfied.

To say that non-voluntary narco-testing and other such ‘truth serum’ methods violate Article 20 of the Constitution that protects the individual’s choice to speak or remain silent is like saying that the standard police practice of forcefully asking the unwilling suspect to come out with the ‘truth’ is also unconstitutional. Very few people barring terrorists tucked away behind websites and aggrieved lovers raise their hands and say ‘I did it’.

Funnily enough, before public opinion in the form of court rulings went the other way, early forms of narco-testing were seen as a way of preventing, not encouraging, torture and ‘third degree’ interrogations. In her essay ‘The Making of Truth Serum’ published in the Bulletin of the History of Medicine in 2005, Alison Winter writes that during the prohibition era in America, the “‘truth serum’ was powerfully represented as a sophisticated, scientific, and non-violent alternative to unsavoury police methods.” It’s a long shot to say that narco-testing is in the same league as waterboarding, electrocuting or any other forms of physical or mental torture.

But then there’s the more serious point of narco-testing being a bogus method to pump out information, a sort of astrology-type practice hiding behind the skirts of ‘scientific method’. Current scientific opinion doesn’t go quite as far, but it states that subjects undergoing narco-analysis tests and injected with chemicals like temazepam and sodium pentothal mix fantasies with facts, thus throwing at the prospective investigator a hotch-potch of lies and truths.

Keeping this ‘unreliability’ factor in mind, I still don’t see how narco-testing can be a rotten thing for a criminal investigation — regardless of whether the crime is terrorism or picking pockets, manufacturing fake stamp paper or murder. The fact is that narco-testing results are not admissible as evidence in court anyway. No one wants them to be and by now experts and cops all over know that. But it may, under proper training — by which the chaff (fantasies) could be separated from the wheat (facts) — provide clues and leads that can be followed up with real, nuts’n’bolts, sleeves-rolled-up-the-elbows forensics. To say that narco-tests will make the police forego proper forensic methods is like saying that horoscopes will make people give up on free will.

Let’s just say at worst, narco-testing is like getting a guy drunk and listening to him speak. It might not be quite in vino veritas (in wine there is truth) but it certainly can’t harm listening to a man with his inhibitions down.

On a slight tangential route, I was reading a fascinating paper ‘The forgotten Indian pioneers of fingerprint science’ by Jasjeet Kaur and G.S. Sodhi of the University of Delhi (Current Science, Jan. 2005.) The authors detail how Edward Henry, the Inspector General of Police, Lower Provinces, Bengal, credited with pioneering modern forensic fingerprinting, hoodwinked two of his colleagues, Sub-Inspectors Azizul Haque and Hem Chandra Bose, in 1897 to claim that he — not Haque and Bose — was the man who came up with the method that became the ‘Henry Classification’ the world over.

Thirteen years after, in 1900, when a commission asked Henry, “Is this system an invention of your own?” he replied, “Yes”. Kaur and Sodhi prove — with research and empirical data — that it was Haque and Bose, not Henry, who pioneered fingerprinting forensic. Don’t you wish now that Henry was made to undergo a narco-test? Just to get a lead or two?

First Published: May 15, 2010 21:50 IST