“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 gunman, 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’.
Hindu philosophy has been deeply engaged with whether or not the truth can be personified, as some believe, in the god Krishna; or whether it is more impersonal, with no material form – the nirgun school. The Bhagavad Gita, said to have been delivered by Krishna to Arjuna in a moral quandary on the verge of a battle with his Kaurava cousins, embodies a convenient approach to truth, cloaked in exhortations to perform his duty as a warrior. In his attempt to persuade a conscience-stricken Arjuna to pick up arms against his own kin, Krishna delivers a sermon on ‘relative’ truth – the same notion that appears to be a guiding light of most public policy in much of Southasia today. However, the weighing of one good or one truth against a ‘larger’ good and larger truth, and thus arriving at a compromise, is fraught with contradictions and subjective assessments, which clearly fly in the face of a concept of ‘absolute’ truth. In relating the parable of the sadhu who points to the whereabouts of a merchant, who then is killed by a thief, Krishna underlines the dilemma of when and in what circumstances hiding the truth (or outright lying) is a moral necessity. Should the sadhu have lied in order to save the merchant?
When notions of compassion or ‘good’ human values are prioritised over facts, subjectivity becomes increasingly open to attack. It therefore took a courageous Scottish justice secretary, Kenny MacAskill, to release on compassionate grounds Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, convicted of masterminding the ‘Lockerbie bombing’ in 1988 that resulted in the deaths of all 270 aboard a US-bound flight. Al-Megrahi, in the terminal stages of prostate cancer, has now gone home to Libya, where he will spend the last few months of his life at home, with his family. MacAskill’s nuanced justification flew in the face of the tit-for-tat justice that is so much the norm today: “The perpetration of an atrocity and outrage cannot and should not be a basis for losing sight of who we are, the values we seek to uphold, and the faith and beliefs by which we seek to live … Compassion and mercy are about upholding the beliefs that we seek to live by, remaining true to our values as a people.” Inevitably, the controversial decision has triggered a barrage of criticism from many sides.
When the very nature of truth is in fact unquantifiable, notions of justice based on the faith underlying the ‘inalienable’ truth are as ephemeral. What is believed to be true and, therefore, of higher value – and, conversely, what is true and therefore potentially damaging to an individual or community – is exactly the stuff of what dilemmas over censorship are made. As detailed in the articles exploring the myriad facets of censorship in this issue of Himal, a state’s black-and-white notions of what is deemed unacceptable will always be problematic. What is considered inflammatory for all, and what could prove objectionable for some? Which are the ‘facts’, then, the unearthing and publication of which would be potentially damaging to a large section of society? And after all this, what exactly is neutrality? In the light of such concerns, objectivity comes to be seen as both necessary and impossible – a ‘vital illusion’, as it were.
Objectivity may be unobtainable, but the effort to achieve it is what gives journalism, or the dispensation of justice, its social utility. It might thus be useful to analyse both ‘truth’ and ‘objectivity’ as processes, rather than as goals. For it is only in striving for the abstract that it actually takes form and shape.