Vol. 31 No. 9 (November 2021) pp. 139-141

THE TRUTH MACHINES: POLICING, VIOLENCE, AND SCIENTIFIC INTERROGATIONS IN INDIA, by Jinee Lokaneeta. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2020. pp.250. Hardcover $95.00. ISBN: 978-0-472-05439-8.

Reviewed by Keally McBride. Department of Politics. University of San Francisco. Email:

What happens when you have a problem that everyone knows about, but it cannot be fixed without removing the inequities that are the root cause? Police torture of people in custody in India is a fact of life that is well known. The problem is so well known that the legal system has developed some pretty zany new techniques for trying to avoid what are called “third degree interrogations”. This is the subject of Jinee Lokaneeta’s THE TRUTH MACHINES: POLICING, VIOLENCE, AND SCIENTIFIC INTERROGATIONS IN INDIA. The book details the position of policing in India’s democracy and recent attempts to introduce scientific methods to achieve adherence to human rights. Lokaneeta is appropriately skeptical about these new practices, but also provides a compelling discussion of state power, legality, and policing through this particular lens.

While many concerned people in the United States have decided that body cameras will fix the problem of overzealous policing, India is focusing on the site of many instances of torture--interrogations. Instead of having the police question suspects, why not have forensic psychologists in white lab coats administer polygraph tests, brain scans (in India these are called brain electrical oscillation signatures or BEOS), and inject suspects with drugs that promote easier speaking (narcoanalysis)? Scientists have a much better reputation than the police; why not use them to do police functions? One of the most remarkable aspects of Lokaneeta’s book is that it shows you can maintain a system of criminal justice even when one of the primary practitioners—the police—are broadly distrusted. The Supreme Court of India has ruled that confessions given to a police officer are inadmissible as evidence—in part due to the notoriety of the methods used to extract these confessions. But forensic psychologists carry the veneer of impartial science, and therefore their results are accepted by the courts.

Lokaneeta’s discussion establishes that three techniques of “scientific interrogations” are embraced as humane alternatives to police beatings and torture. She conducted interviews with forensic psychologists and studied the jurisprudence and media that have bestowed legal authority and scientific validity to practices that are in reality based upon debunked (or, to be very generous, unproven) scientific evidence. Lokaneeta traces the history of truth serums and lie detectors to the United States. In India though, contesting the use of these techniques is construed as support for police torture. Some of the more fascinating moments in TRUTH MACHINES emerge through her interviews, where casual assessment of the policing environment is revealed. One forensic psychologist pointed out that in high profile cases, police would not engage in physical abuse because of the heightened scrutiny. But in normal cases, the temptation to torture looms large. Lokaneeta quotes her interviewee at length:

“Usually police officers don’t opt for third degree. They’re not inhuman in nature, but sometimes they get orders to do such things. Even they share that ‘we don’t enjoy giving third degree. We try to avoid it as much as possible.’ But in some cases when they’re not getting anything, when they think that, they see that the person is very resistant, they go for it. But they also agree that if we have this kind of technology, then we’ll think about it. Next time we’ll not go for third degree” (p. 98).

One of the fascinating aspects of Lokaneeta’s book is how many people assume that the logic of police torture is simply baked into the criminal justice system. As one person explains, a suspect has to appear before a court within 24 hours of being arrested. This seems like it might be a way of minimizing police abuse. Instead, this constraint is interpreted as providing a sort of “ticking time bomb” scenario, whereby a police officer has only 3-4 hours of interrogation to make someone talk, making it difficult for them to go “by the rule book” (p. 40). Within those three or four hours, offices would rather resort to abusive measures to try and elicit a desired response (p. 40).

Lokaneeta’s book is reminiscent of Nick Cheeseman’s book about criminal justice in Myanmar, OPPOSING THE RULE OF LAW, in detailing how meticulously and often farcically, procedural elements of the rule of law are followed. Suspects must be examined by a doctor to ensure they have not been harmed. This has led to inventive torture methods that leave no marks. Lokaneeta includes one account of a suspect being told that his female family members would be raped if they recounted anything about the abuse they suffered to the doctor examining them. Lokaneeta terms this “The Scaffolding of the Rule of Law” in Chapter 6, which explores how the image of compliance with the rule of law is maintained, in part through these scientific interrogations. The Indian criminal justice system has been subjected to scathing reports by human rights organizations; these three sanctified techniques allow the country to demonstrate their compliance with international norms. The choice between police torture and scientific interrogations is nonetheless proven to be a false one. There is one notorious forensic psychologist that pinched the ears of a suspect with pliers during narcointerrogations and threatened to inject him with AIDS if he gave answers she did not like (p. 150).

Lokaneeta repeatedly points out that these techniques are a flimsy scrim and clearly aims for a more robust reform of the criminal justice system in India. I was particularly intrigued by her short discussion of the Gore report of 1971, which proposed that the police in India could serve as a central figure in reforming the independent nation and creating a socialist and equitable society. My own research has revealed that police and legal reform commissions come and go in India, yet nothing ever seems to change. It would have been heartening to hear of any social movements demanding more substantial changes or if there are any alternative visions of law and order circulating in India right now.

THE TRUTH MACHINES can also be read as a cautionary tale about police reform. Many activists in the United States have spent the last year enmeshed in protests aimed to change the public’s perception of the police. Police violence is a relatively visible tip of an enormous iceberg of structural, spiritual and physical violence in the United States. However, police violence is also distinct from these other types because it is clearly and directly state-sanctioned. It is crucial to understand that the problem of the police is universal; whatever ills and inequities plague a social system will certainly be displayed in the context of criminal justice.

What would happen if the George Floyd protests had been successful, and we saw a sea change in media, public opinion, and the courts’ attitudes towards the police in this country? Of course, we would seek to reign in police abuses! The police in my hometown, Oakland, California, have been under federal supervision for a record-setting 18 years and officers wear body cameras. Does this make a difference to their actions? To give just one example, the teenager who was pimped out by an Oakland police officer to other officers on the force in 2017 would probably think not. Lokaneeta’s book demonstrates how difficult it is to overcome impunity, even when there is a widespread recognition of it as a problem.

Lokaneeta ends her book with a discussion of India’s democracy as a “contingent state.” She offers this as an alternative to the Weberian monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, as India clearly struggles to legitimize or control state violence. The “contingent state” is also an alternative to Schmitt’s state of exception that sees extralegal violence as the exercise of sovereignty. India, as a “contingent state”, patches together different solutions that attempt to legitimize some violence and appears to wrestle other types of violence into submission. Unfortunately, it often tinkers at the edges of violence, state, and law with a creativity that belies any claim to systematic governmentality. THE TRUTH MACHINES provides an intriguing investigation of police violence and legal fictions in India, but also recounts the far broader lesson of how states solve one problem by creating others.


Cheeseman, Nick. 2015. OPPOSING THE RULE OF LAW: HOW MYANMAR’S COURTS MAKE LAW AND ORDER. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

© Copyright 2021 by author, Keally McBride.