By now we’ve all seen how Indian doctors are being forced to take a time out from saving lives to battle Ramdev, our best-known yoga Teacher who, after spitting all over modern medicine, issued a disingenuous withdrawal of his diatribe. What hasn’t been withdrawn though is a targeted attack against office bearers of the Indian Medical Association, the organisation of doctors leading the fight against Yoga Trainer Ramdev’s misinformation. The playbook is predictable; we’ve seen it used in recent years against Muslims, students, critics of the ruling government, and political activists. Doctors are the new enemy.
“I am withdrawing my statement on allopathy & modern sciences and putting an end to this whole debate surrounding the field of medicines,” Ramdev tweeted after he was reprimanded by health minister Harsh Vardhan for saying things like, “Lakhs of people died after taking allopathic medicines [in the pandemic]”. His Patanjali Yogpeeth Trust said Ramdev was only reading “a forwarded WhatsApp messsage received by him”. Of course, that was not the end of the debate. “As part of the conspiracy to convert the entire country into #Christianity, #Yoga and #Ayurveda are being maligned by targeting @yogrishiramdev jee,” tweeted Acharya Balakrishna about JT Jayalal, IMA President. Christians make up less than 2.5% of India’s population but why let facts get in the way.
This war cry by Balakrishna, India’s 15th richest man in 2018 & the main shareholder of Patanjali Ayurved (Ramdev opted for a life of sanyas in 1995 and is required by the scriptures to shun wealth), was a signal for India’s globally-famous rightwing troll army to charge. Incidentally, the past few years have seen a sharp erosion of Balakrishna’s wealth as Patanjali struggled to comply with new goods and services tax norms.
Jayalal, who recently moved to Kanyakumari, and who has spent a large chunk of the last year and a half treating Covid-19 patients, must now face a case filed by Delhi advocate Vishnu Sharma for “maliciously bringing Christianity in all statements made by him”. “In the morning the complaint was filed and in the evening I got a summons,” Jayalal tells me over the phone.
Twitter handles like @ModiBharosa—unsurprisingly, followed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi—push this narrative, in addition to questioning the political affiliation of former IMA presidents including those who promote “hate against Modi”. Balakrishna is tagged in and enthusiastically retweets conspiracy theories about how big pharma and big consumer companies would benefit if Patanjali Ayurved was discredited. It’s quite the opposite really.
The man who owns the two largest religious television networks in the country has effectively converted a cheap publicity stunt to boost sales of Patanjali’s controversial products such as Coronil into a battle between allopathy and ayurveda.
Unsurprisingly, Coronil has been endorsed by several Bharatiya Janata Party ministers at various points during the pandemic.
Meanwhile Ramdev the anti-vaxxer continues unchecked. His latest? He doesn’t need the vaccine, he already has dual cover with yoga and ayurveda. “What I believe, what the globe believes, vaccination is the only tool that is going to help us,” says Jayalal who is desperately trying to steer the conversation back to the real issue i.e. Ramdev’s blatant misinformation about the vaccine, his clear mockery of government protocols to treat the disease and the effect of his statements in hospitals. IMA recently wrote to Modi asking that the yoga guru be prosecuted for this
“The IMA has nothing against ayurveda,” Jayalal says. “He’s [Ramdev] a pharmaceutical giant, talking from a corporate perspective.”
Lesser mortals have faced the wrath of the BJP for speaking against the vaccine.
In Tamil Nadu, the BJP filed a complaint against actor Mansoor Ali Khan after he linked actor Vivekh’s death to the vaccination. In Uttar Pradesh, the government even charged someone for tweeting SOS messages about the lack of oxygen cylinders. “Arrest to khair unka baap bhi nahin kar sakta Swami Ramdev ko (even their father cannot arrest Swami Ramdev),” Ramdev says in another video. While the me the medical community may joke that Ramdev’s arresting officer doesn’t have to be someone’s father, it could even be someone’s mother—Indian doctors, who are counting on democracy and the judiciary to back them, are up against a hardscrabble fighter. Ramdev has always had friends in high places. Once upon a time, ND Tiwari of the Congress and Mulayam Singh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party were his were his patrons; in 2014 and 2019 he placed his bets on Modi. You could say Ramdev likes to ensure he’s on the winning team.
My favourite book about him is former Mint reporter Priyanka Pathak-Narain’s Godman To Tycoon: The Untold Story Of Baba Ramdev, released in 2017, a time when Patanjali Ayurved was the fastest growing fast-moving consumer goods company, leaping 100% annually. The book examines his origins, his murky past, and his meteoric rise, through interviews with 52 people.
Back then too he loved to shock his audience. “Colgate ka gate bhi band hoga, Pantene ki pant kharab hone wali hai, Unilever ka lever bhi baithega aur Nestle ki chidiya bhi udegi. (the gate of Colgate will shut, Pantene will soil its pants, the lever of Unilever will break down, and the little Nestle bird will fly away.” Pathak-Narain says this was Ramdev’s declaration of war on the country’s largest FMCG Companies.
While he did make FMCG companies open to experimenting with ayurveda in their products, nobody wet their pants and no levers were broken.
In a 2016 yoga camp, Pathak-Narain writes, Ramdev tells his audience there are two things that he has to do: “Make all foreign companies do sirshasana (headstand) within five years, and put Mother India on the throne of the world. Kitna maza aayega.”
Five years are up and both Patanjali’s sales and Mother India’s fortunes need a booster dose of something strong.
Credits : Priya Ramani, She is a Bengaluru-based journalist and is on the editorial board of Article-14.