Convenience as truth

"The victory of truth" is how Ujjwal Nikam, a special public prosecutor, described the dramatic confession – almost eight months after the event – by Ajmal Kasab, regarding his role in the 26 November 2008 attacks in Bombay. But then, Nikam went on to say that Kasab was not telling the "whole truth", ostensibly in the hopes of receiving a lighter punishment. It is ironic that the deliverance of justice is hinged on the confession of the only surviving gunmxan, and not on the evidence that the prosecution has been able to gather. It is, after all, the re-construction of the 'truth' that is supposed to bring perpetrators to justice. Yet confessions of the accused, whether under torture or in court following pressure of other kinds, have always held a dubious place in the assignation of guilt. It is perhaps for this reason that narconalysis using a 'truth serum', largely discredited in the democratic world, was not finally used to get Kasab to spill the beans.

The etymological derivation of truth, from an Old English word meaning 'faith', offers an important nudge for those who unquestioningly rely on the objective existence of 'truth'. In fact, philosophers have long theorised about just this notion: from Socrates, who held that true beliefs and actions corresponded to actual phenomena; to rationalists such as Spinoza, who believed in the 'coherence theory' of truth – that something can only be considered true if it fits into a larger logical system. And then came Hegel and Marx, who held that the truth is specific to particular cultures, and is moulded by hierarchies and conflicts within those societies. Thus, regardless of how badly most seem to want it – or how baldly most seem to believe in it – the fact of the matter is that there is no 'pure' or single truth. There are many truths, those agreed upon by a larger crowd or, perhaps, those agreed upon by those who 'matter'.

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Himal Southasian