Narcoanalysis has little scientific grounding
The mere mention of narcoanalysis has a calming effect on the public. And perhaps that is its ultimate purpose — to feed the public imagination on extracting the truth from the body, particularly in a high-profile case. If physical targeting is not possible, do it in a medicalised manner.
As the police turn to narcoanalysis to extract key information from Aaftab Poonawala, accused of brutally murdering his partner Shraddha Walkar, it is essential to recall the chequered history of this technique. Each time a horrific case occurs — whether it is the 2008 Aarushi-Hemraj (double murder) case, the 2006 Bombay blast case, or the 2006 Nithari killings — the desire to use narcoanalysis as the magic bullet has been remarkable.
The difference between the Poonawala case and the other three incidents mentioned is that they were all in the 2000s, before a landmark judicial verdict. In 2010, the Supreme Court (SC) intervened in an ongoing debate (Selvi vs State of Karnataka, where the apex court ruled on the constitutionality of various evidence-gathering techniques) on the use of what I call the “truth machines” — a unique combination of lie detectors (in use since the 1970s), brain scans and narcoanalysis (used since the early 2000s), which have taken over the legal, policing and popular imagination as the main methods to get to the truth.
The high courts upheld these techniques as replacing physical torture in a medicalised setting because doctors, anesthesiologists and psychiatrists play a role in monitoring the accused as sodium pentothal is injected and a forensic psychologist asks the questions to the person in a semiconscious or twilight state, ostensibly unable to lie.
The high courts accepted the argument that these techniques help unveil the truth, and that similar to other medical tests, such as MRI, it may not even require consent. Yet narcoanalysis is critiqued by many scholars for being invasive, capable of physical harm, and a violation of the self-incrimination clause of the Constitution. Hence in Selvi, the SC intervened to clarify that the techniques couldn’t be used without the consent of the accused and the evidence, as a result, is inadmissible (with exceptions). At the time, critics and supporters predicted the disappearance of this technique. Yet, more than a decade later, narcoanalysis continues to flourish in India, in sharp contrast to its dwindling appeal worldwide. The SC’s decision did curb its expansion but these techniques continued to find a mention in many noteworthy cases such as the 2020 Hathras gang rape of a Dalit woman, the 2012 Sheena Bora disappearance and the 2021 hit and run of a Jharkhand judge, Uttam Anand. So, while it is by no means the only technique used, narcoanalysis (and polygraph) has a particular hold on the police’s and the public’s imagination, even if not the legal one.
Two unsustainable contentions have always accompanied narcoanalysis from the time Robert House discovered it in the United States (US) in 1922: It inhibits the ability to lie and hence opens a path to the truth, and it is more humane than physical third degree. Yet, even as the US police experimented with this technique in the 1930s and 40s, and then the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) during Cold War, the statement by a CIA report that “no such magic brew as the… truth serum exists,” and the intervention of the US Supreme Court denying its admissibility in the 1960s ensured that the investigators don’t turn to it anymore. Further research into the technique has proved conclusively that it has little scientific grounding, is inherently unreliable (there is no way to prove that statements given in a drugged state are true) and often elicits no usable response for investigations, unlike, say, other approaches such as using DNA matches. Moreover, it is a highly invasive technique, raises questions about whether informed and free consent is possible at all in custody, and above all, refocuses attention on the body as the source of truth. In India, narcoanalysis has sometimes accompanied physical torture in terror cases, and emerged in high-profile cases at junctures where the police ostensibly feel stuck, and, therefore, its use is more worrying.
Two kinds of insights emerged from my fieldwork that involved going to forensic science labs in five Indian cities and interviewing forensics psychologists, lawyers, police and activists. One, a retired police sub-inspector in Bengaluru, once equated narcoanalysis to mixing two kinds of alcohol to induce a subject to confess, thereby questioning the scientific validity of the technique. He was not alone. Second, a prominent forensic science university director once told me, “Whenever they [police] can’t use torture, they bring them here for confessions.”
In the Poonawala case (his narco test is likely to be conducted this week), the court has made it clear that the police cannot use third degree. Reports also suggest that he will undergo pre-narco tests to ensure his emotional, mental, psychological and physiological well-being. Ironically, all these steps confirm an attempt to reinforce the humane nature of the technique and yet recreate the same logic of the physical “third degree” in the name of replacing it: Forcing the body to confess at all costs, rather than develop other skills of investigation and questioning. A forensic psychologist once told me that the mere mention of narcoanalysis has a calming effect on the public. And perhaps that is its ultimate purpose — to feed the public imagination on extracting the truth from the body, particularly in a high-profile case. If physical targeting is not possible, do it in a medicalised manner.
Jinee Lokaneeta is a professor of political science & international relations, Drew University. She is the author of The Truth Machines: Policing, Violence and Scientific Interrogations in India (University of Michigan Press, Orient Blackswan, 2020)The views expressed are personal