By Jinee Lokaneeta

The police have claimed that lie detectors, brain scans, and narcoanalysis (the use of “truth serum,” Sodium Pentothal) represent a paradigm shift away from physical torture.

A major feature of the Weberian, rational bureaucratic state is its monopoly over legitimate violence. As Weber famously explained, “ Legal coercion by violence is the monopoly of the state.”[i] In everyday practice, of course, the police, though not the only state institution, are closely associated with violence and are, for most people, “the most visible symbol of the authority of the State.”[ii] A common assumption, however, is that the police, like other bureaucratic institutions, are restrained by a set of rules. In his famous essay on bureaucracy, Weber considers rules a major function of modern officialdom:  “The authority to give the commands required for the discharge of these duties is distributed in a stable way and is strictly delimited by rules concerning the coercive means…”[iii]

Scholars often uncritically embrace this formulation. As Guillermina Seri elaborates, “Together with a dismissal of the governing aspects of police, political scientists tend to treat both the police and bureaucratic state apparatuses as politically neutral and as at least normatively subjected to the law. Yet it is through these governing processes delivered through these apparatuses that exclusion thrives.”[iv] This assumption of a neutrally functioning bureaucracy can allow the state to attribute excessive violence to such conditions as inadequate training and can obscure the violence accommodated in the process of governing.[v]

A focus on everyday police practice thus becomes essential for revealing the underlying processes of policing. Insights from the new police science invite us to think about the “actual operation of government” and the “everyday participants in the institutions of state government.”[vi] Mark Neocleous further distinguishes between the new and old police science by explaining that the former is much more critical in its approach to understanding the “mechanisms through which police powers operate” as opposed to a way to improve how the police work.[vii] A significant theoretical insight from the new police science is that policing is multifaceted. The police have a role not only in punishment for acts already committed but also in prevention as, for example, in public health or zoning.[viii]

As Markus Dubber and Mariana Valverde write, “Police works as a sort of temporal-hinge word, allowing the governance of the past to be articulated with the governance of the future.”[ix] Valverde further notes that, for Foucault, police power constitutes an important part of the state framework as “practices of power-knowledge” and the state represent the “coagulations of practices.”[x] The new police science thus points to how state practices and techniques in the everyday operations of government become significant, meriting critical study. The police then become an important site where state power is formed and state violence realized.

Drawing from the new police science and from a critique of the Weberian conception of the police as a bureaucracy, I analyze the use of truth machines, which promised to replace physical torture during investigations. A Weberian conception of the bureaucratic state posits a unified, state-sanctioned police institution, with intentionally created rules of investigation. As my interviews revealed, however, the everyday practices of policing are much more contingent, and the adoption of truth machines represents less a well thought-out strategy than a set of varying conditions that render these techniques pragmatically chosen tactics.

These techniques for investigation appear to have been innovations of individual forensic psychologists (discussed in chapters 3 and 4), which grew in popularity during the 2000s. According to one police official, the public eventually came to say, “arre wo jooth bola to usse narcoanalysis dal re” (if he lies, just subject him to narcoanalysis), although “previously the public was never knowing, what is narcoanalysis, what is lie detector, and all…And even public awareness was so much, even if a criminal does something, the police used to start telling like, we’ll subject them for narcoanalysis,…and they will tell all the truth.”[xi]

One forensic psychologist described a case, in a rural area, in which the police had been unable to solve a crime.[xii] Angry crowds surrounded the policeman, and in order to extricate him, the police claimed to be subjecting the suspect to narcoanalysis or some other scientific test. The promise of narcoanalysis appeared to calm the crowd, indicating that its legitimacy was greater, presumably, than torture or persistent interrogation. Rather than a well-considered plan, therefore, the police response to the crowd led to the use of narcoanalysis. Here the police rendered narcoanalysis instrumental, even spectacular and so represented themselves as ethical agents who were eager to solve the crime without resorting to physical torture.[xiii] Of course, as chapter 4 elaborates, the state also consolidates opportunities, from the emergence of truth machines to their accommodation, to project itself as a rational regime (or what Timothy Mitchell would term a “structural effect”[xiv]).

Nonetheless, police practice remains contingent, with unstable meanings associated with “practices of power knowledge.”  This contingency is evident in my conversation with a retired police officer, who had thirty-five years of service, a man from Coorg (a former princely state of India). The men of Coorg, classified as a warrior community, often join either the military or the police.[xv] During his college days, this officer had been selected for the Indian military academy but had failed to complete his degree because of an incident in which an officer had mistakenly picked up a student who then died in lockup, possibly because of torture. In response, the retired officer, a student leader, had led a dharna (protest) and, as a result, was barred from finishing his education and joining the military. Later, he studied law and learned about the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC), which he called the police’s bhagwad gita (a Hindu religious text). Reading the criminal code, he explained, had led him not to practice law but to join the police, possibly because he had understood the death in lockup as a misuse of law rather than its accommodation to violence.

The retired officer described joining the police after the Emergency in India (1975-1977), when fundamental rights were suspended. With torture and heavy handedness, the police at the time evoked much fear, resulting in many protests and, eventually, the fall of the Congress Party government, which had held power since Indian independence. As the officer explained,  “When I and others joined the police department, there was no narcoanalysis, or such things were unheard of; only third degree and torturing the criminals was the method that was being used, which is not legal.”[xvi] Like many officers, however, he understood the pressure to gain quick answers from suspects and saw torture and third-degree interrogation as means for gaining suspects’ cooperation in serious crimes. He had thus come to consider violence necessary and no longer blamed the police for the custodial death. Gradually, he went on to say, “narcoanalysis came; human rights came; we had to use very patient methods, very slow detection. Breakthrough took some time.”[xvii]

For this retired officer, therefore, narcoanalysis was linked to the emergence of human rights, in direct contrast to the views of activists who deem it a form of psychological torture because of its impact on body and mind.[xviii] Indeed, as former detainee and now activist Arun Ferreira describes, police officers have concealed torture to avoid visible marks, ostensibly in response to the human rights regime: “Such concealment, however, did not appeal to all the officers,” Ferreira recalled. “Many of the officers spoke nostalgically of the good old days before the spread of awareness of human rights and prisoner rights…The courts are to blame. In the late 1970s and the early 1980s, the Supreme Court held that even prisoners have human rights. And now we have these numerous Human Rights Commissions ever-willing to raise their voice.”[xix]

The retired officer’s discussion of narcoanalysis emerged in the context of a criminal case that involved a couple from England who were visiting Bangalore. The woman had been raped, and, in a separate incident, her boyfriend had been killed. In the rape case, the woman had used a penknife to stab the driver of a three-wheeler auto when he failed to respond to her questions about the destination. The police officer checked the area clinics and found a man with the suspect’s unusual name, Kadrappa, which led to his arrest, but was disappointed when the state investigation unit (known then as the Corps of Detectives, or COD) took over the case. The COD, which supposedly avoids third-degree interrogation, did eventually return the suspect, but the officer’s superior asked him also to refrain from using it. The unavailability of third-degree tactics thus required improvisation.

The retired officer went on to tell me a narcoanalysis-related narrative. At the police station, after inquiring whether a suspect drank liquor, the officer had mixed beer with some brandy, which caused the suspect to become so excited that he provided all the information asked of him. The effects of alcohol, the officer explained, made this intervention equivalent to narcoanalysis and illustrated that neither third-degree interrogation nor scientifically sanctioned narcoanalysis was necessary. The entire episode was also videographed without the suspect’s knowledge, and with the confession then legally inadmissible, the officer had pointed to other evidence, including a flower that the rape victim had seen embossed on the three-wheeler and the nurse’s confirmation of the suspect’s identity. Together, he explained, these pieces of evidence were pucca (solid).

When asked whether a reduction in scientifically sanctioned narcoanalysis would return the police to older methods, this officer and his colleagues thought it would. As one officer explained decision making during interrogation, “But other methods are definitely there, like giving him a biryani (special rice dish) if he likes biryani or giving him some alcohol…giving him alcohol just to befriend him, just to make him more, you know, avoid or remove his inhibitions. Those kinds of methods, I think, have been used.”[xx]

Describing interaction between police and suspect, yet another officer claimed that the police were almost at the mercy of the accused, fulfilling their demands for alcohol, ganja (marijuana), or cocaine until they seemed satiated, especially at night. Only then would the police start the questioning.[xxi]

These processes, of course, undermine the state’s claim to scientifically sanctioned narcoanalysis. Indeed, one police officer actually asked whether I was inquiring about scientific or unscientific narcoanalysis. He insisted that, even before the scientific use of narcoanalysis by doctors in hospitals, police had requested local doctors to administer drugs like pethidine, a pain medication, or Actifed, a decongestant made of chlorpheniramine and phenylephrine, to make suspects “semiconscious.” One suspect had “started telling some sort of things,” the officer related, and he continued,

We tell him, these are the things that you have done, that this is the thing being reported against you, and you did so many things here, and recently there was a case also here on that road somewhere, like Tannery Road, and wherein your name is coming now, and you are a good person. Like that we just, narrating the stories and other things. We’ll also tell him; you tell; nothing will happen. God is there. And in that semiconscious [condition] he starts telling so many things.[xxii]

In these instances, police apply practices that both challenge bureaucratic, rule-based policing and reveal it as arbitrary. As techniques emerge, are used, and contrast with other tools, the police, acting ethically, can try to render the science of narcoanalysis instrumental or spectacular, or they can interpret and invent creative techniques that fit the culture of policing, even if these are not formally medicalized.[xxiii]

Critical scholarship and human rights advocacy often suggest that the state and police develop new forms of violence that appear humane and controlled also because they are sanitized through language.[xxiv] Such an argument has been applied to more humane forms of execution (as Austin Sarat notes regarding the U.S.) or to non-scarring methods of torture such as sleep deprivation or stress positions rather than whips and razors (as Darius Rejali traces more generally).[xxv] Human rights scholars have argued that, in India, truth machines represent a shift from physical to more psychological methods of torture.[xxvi] In contrast, a state-centered narrative points to the very contingent nature of this shift or, more accurately, to the coexistence of several methods. The pressure to perform efficiently leads the police to rely on forensic psychologists, many of whom reiterated to me that the police came to them only in cases with no specific evidence, a need to screen a number of people, or no other way to proceed.[xxvii] Sometimes, they noted, the police would petition for these tests merely to buy time in a case.

Weber identifies rules and precision – the lack of ambiguity – as instruments that make bureaucracies technically superior to other forms of organization.[xxviii] The dominant, Weberian conception of state institutions, in this case the police, is thus a functional, rational bureaucracy. My interviews with police, however, reveal arbitrariness and contingency determining the use of truth machines in interrogation. As Laleh Khalili notes, the more state officials tried to classify detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan as lawful or unlawful combatants or as high-value detainees, the more arbitrary the classifications and related behavior became.[xxix]

Scholars such as Akhil Gupta have pointed to contingency in the functioning of state officials in other kinds of bureaucracies, where the relationship between contingency and discretionary power is particularly significant.[xxx] As Guillermina Seri notes in her study of the Argentine police, “Discretion is a core trait of police power.”[xxxi] Discretion, I argue, characterizes the actions of the individual police officers. Police discretion allows officials to use power at the micro level. Contingency, in contrast, is much more structural and counters the notion of unified, rule-based policing. Contingent conditions, moreover, enable the incorporation, exclusion, or modification of certain practices.

Here the relationship to science determines the contingent action. As my interviews reveal, the arsenal available to the police is often wide ranging, from physical torture and unscientific techniques (in police stations) to scientific techniques (in labs and hospitals) to petitions to delay investigation. This range reflects complexity and variability. Discretion is thus a function of structural contingencies in this site of state power. While official truth machines in labs and hospitals invite legal scrutiny, unofficial techniques remain available to the police, to be used at their discretion. As state narratives, my interviews document the workings of police power in investigations, whether through indeterminate rules or through arbitrary definitions of scientific means. The rational bureaucratic regime, ostensibly based on a monopoly over legitimate violence, is therefore constantly reconstituted in everyday police practices that mediate the relationship of the police to violence.


[i] Max Weber, “The Economic System and the Normative Orders,” in Law in Economy and Society, ed. Max Rheinstein (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1966), 14.

[ii] M. S. Gore, Committee on Police Training, Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India, 1971, 26 (henceforth Gore Committee Report).

[iii] Weber, “Bureaucracy,” 49.

[iv] Seri, Seguridad, 133.

[v] In previous work, I have suggested that law itself can accommodate excess violence. Lokaneeta, Transnational Torture.

[vi] Dubber and Valverde, “Policing the Rechtsstaat,” 5.

[vii] Neocleous. “Theoretical Foundations,” 21.

[viii] Markus Dubber and Mariana Valverde, “Perspective on the Power and Science of Police,” in New Police Science, ed. Dubber and Valverde, 4–5.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Mariana Valverde, “Police, Sovereignty, and Law: Foucaultian Reflections,” in Dubber and Valverde, Police and the Liberal State, 17–18.

[xi] Interview with Police Official, Bangalore, 2014.

[xii] Interview with Forensic Psychologist, Mumbai, 2013.

[xiii] I thank Bhavani Raman for this important insight.

[xiv] Mitchell, “Society, Economy, and the State Effect,” 170.

[xv] In fact, the police official credits a British lord for giving Coorgis the right to carry weapons without requiring a license.

[xvi] Interview with Police Official, Bangalore, 2014.

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] See chapter 5 for details of critiques by human rights activists.

[xix] Ferreira. Colours of the Cage,  96-7.

[xx] Interview with another Police Official, Bangalore, 2014.

[xxi] Interview with another Police Official, Bangalore, 2014.

[xxii] Ibid.; emphasis added.

[xxiii] I thank Pratiksha Baxi and Bhavani Raman for this insight.

[xxiv] Austin Sarat, When the State Kills: Capital Punishment and the American Condition (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001); Rejali, Torture and Democracy.

[xxv] Ibid.

[xxvi] See chapter 5 for detailed critiques by human rights activists.

[xxvii] Interviews with Forensic Psychologists, 2013, 2014, 2016.

[xxviii] Weber, “Bureaucracy,” 57.

[xxix] Laleh Khalili. Time in the Shadows: Confinement in Counterinsurgencies (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012).

[xxx] Gupta. Red Tape. 13. See also discussion on contingency and discretion in Leonard Feldman. “The Banality of Emergency: On the Time and Space of Political Necessity.” In Austin Sarat (Editor). Sovereignty, Emergency, Legality, 136-164. (Cambridge University Press, 2006).

[xxxi] Seri, Seguridad, 110.

Jinee Lokaneeta is a Professor and Chair of the Political Science and International Relations Department at Drew University, Madison, New Jersey. She is also President of the Consortium for Undergraduate Law and Justice Programs (CULJP)

This excerpt comes from her book The Truth Machines: Policing, Violence, and Scientific Interrogations in India (University of Michigan Press, 2020).

Free access to the book is available online at

Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in this article reflect the author’s views and not necessarily the views of The Big Q. 

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