India’s Forensic Challenge

“We can all see, but can you observe?”
― A. D. Garrett, Everyone Lies

The last couple of years saw two big cases making the headlines of the Indian tabloids frequently: the Sheena Bora murder case, and Sunanda Pushkar’s (Indian National Congress leader Shashi Tharoor’s wife) alleged suicide. The sudden upheaval caused by these cases was nothing short of a daily soap, with every household closely following their developments.

The progress of these cases also brought various shades of the Indian investigative system into the limelight. The case of Bora’s murder, which happened in April 2012, resurfaced only in August 2015. The three year gap between the discovery of Bora’s remains, and the investigation to gain some result, led to serious discrepancies in the forensic aspect of the case. BYL Nair Hospital, Mumbai conducted a forensic analysis on Bora’s remains, and confirmed a profile of a woman within Sheena’s age range and body frame. Additionally, another private institute matched the skull remains to Sheena Bora’s facial structure.  

New troubles arose for the seemingly smooth investigation, when the remains submitted by the police to JJ Hospital, Mumbai in 2012, and the remains returned by JJ to BYL Nair Hospital, Mumbai in 2015, for further investigation, did not match. The contradicting forensic reports with respect to causes for Indrani Mukherjea’s (the accused for Sheena Bora’s murder) collapse in her prison cell, further questions their reliability. For an investigation tying up threads for a heinous crime such as murder, unadulterated forensic evidence is of utmost importance. Inconclusive findings like these are a result of caused by neglect by police and disoriented methodology

Back in 2008, the Aarushi Talwar case took the nation by storm. The handling of forensics in this double murder investigation underwent considerable amount of criticism. The crime scene was heavily contaminated due to the carelessness of the police officials in charge evidence (for instance, the crime scene was contaminated with fingerprints of the people present, which made it difficult to acquire any information of a possible suspect). This kind of negligence has terrible repercussions on tying up loose ends of an investigation, consequently leading to unsatisfying evidence.

Unavailability of proper lab instruments led to several investigative delays in Sunanda Pushkar’s alleged suicide case (later revealed to be a murder). Since the equipment essential to detect a certain kind of poison was not available in India, the task had to be outsourced to a lab in the USA. The investigation faced a severe setback when the AIIMS forensic chief claimed that he was forced to produce a fake report for the case, and came under tremendous pressure when he refused to do so.

The Indian Supreme Court passed a judgement in 2011 that no test shall be conducted on a suspect without his/her permission. Further, any evidence collected through such a test cannot be used in the court. This poses as a huge hurdle in the public prosecutor’s case, unless some other influential evidence is acquired based on the test results. In more recent times, the double murder case of Hema Upadhay and her lawyer has suffered from this judgement as the court refused permission to the police to conduct a narco analysis on the victim’s husband (a potential suspect).

Digital forensics in India also seems to be lagging as compared to the rest of the world, with respect to available technology. Furthermore, there is a lack of qualified personnel in the forensic labs in our country, which poses as a serious challenge. There is no proper training in forensic methodology provided to the police officials, and the psychological aspect of the field is largely overlooked. Experience of working with cases forms a large part of their forensic know-how. Further, it has been observed that there are several clashes between the staff at forensic labs and police officials, due to the lack of knowledge of terminologies of the latter, thereby leading to further delay and negligence as mentioned in the cases above.

India needs a more established structure for handling forensic cases. The government needs to direct more funds towards improving forensic lab facilities and the technology used. Moreover, proper training needs to be provided to investigation officers with respect to handling of evidence, dealing with the crime scene, focusing on more relevant aspects of investigation, and the like. The police could also directly recruit personnel qualified in forensics under them, so that ethical handling of evidence takes place, and a person is readily available to interpret the final reports accurately. The investigative agencies need to streamline their procedures, create a basic forensic know-how within their personnel, and identify and fill the procedural gaps in handling of cases.  If this isn’t achieved soon, the system surely poses a risk to become dangerously similar to the TV serial CID!

Sampada Karandikar

Free Will: Is this the real life… Is this just fantasy?

“You say: I am not free. But I have raised and lowered my arm. Everyone understands that this illogical answer is an irrefutable proof of freedom.”
― Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

When you were getting ready in the morning, did you choose the colour of the shirt you would wear today? Do you arbitrarily choose what dish you want to order at a restaurant? Did you voluntarily choose the subject of your undergraduate degree?

All these questions refer to the choice we have, while making decisions in life. The ability to make that choice is what we call free will. Free will is the ability of an agent to select an option (a behavior, an object, a course etc.) from a set of alternatives (Mick, 2008) .

Most people believe that they have free will, and they control their decisions. However, many psychologists and philosophers refute the idea of free will with the idea of determinism. Philosophy defines determinism as a notion that every event or state of affairs, including every human decision and action, is the inevitable and necessary consequence of the antecedent states of affairs. Putting it in simpler terms- all our actions are pre-determined, and we do not really have the freedom of ‘choosing what we want to do’. Daniel Wegner, in his book The Illusion of Conscious Will (2002), states that free will is just an illusion, and we attribute it to be the cause of events, whose actual causes we don’t really understand.

To test whether people really have free will, Benjamin Libet (1982) conducted an experiment, where he measured cerebral activity, and found out that freely, voluntary acts were preceded by a specific electrical change (readiness potential ‘RP’)  in the brain that began about 550 ms before the act. Human subjects became aware of the intention to act 350–400 ms after the RP began, but 200 ms before the motor act. He therefore concluded that the volitional process was initiated unconsciously (through a set of neurological functions), but the conscious function could still control the outcome. Hence, even though his experiments indicated that the choice made by people was not random, but predetermined, the existence of free will could not be completely eliminated.

Furthermore, even in the field of criminology, there is a long standing argument that we do not have free will; therefore, a person’s criminal behavior is determined by environmental, biological and social factors. Many have used this argument in the court of law to justify transgressions. But arguments of this nature haven’t found many takers in the legal system. For instance, American courts are not likely to warm up to the idea of genetic causes behind crime, and tend to stress on the fact the people have the free will to choose between right and wrong (Jones, 2003). Hence, even within the justice system, there is no clear acceptance or rejection of free will.

But what if we do indeed make choices consciously, and only come to know about them much later? Does that mean free will really exists, but we all have misinterpreted how it exactly  happens?  Holton (2004), in his review Wegner’s book The Illusion of Conscious Will (2002) stated that precursor events might be genuinely mental events of which the subject is not aware about until later. This leads to a whole different set of ideas about how free will operates.

People have argued strongly for and against free will, but none seem to have reached a consensus about it. One of the oldest questions to plague the field of psychology still remains unresolved. When I decided to write about this topic, was it my freedom of choice or was it some predetermined set of biological and neurological functions?

Sampada Karandikar