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Controversy and Clout: The Journey of Patanjali and Baba Ramdev

Amidst legal challenges and public scrutiny, Patanjali's bold claims and Baba Ramdev's political ties raise questions about accountability. How influence and power navigate through the regulatory landscape remains a critical question.

By Varghese George
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Baba Ramdev

Baba Ramdev | Sketch | Courtesy: Special arrangement

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The Supreme Court's recent decision to issue a contempt notice to Patanjali Ayurveda, yoga guru Baba Ramdev and the company’s Managing Director Acharya Balkrishna, for making false health claims about their product was a much needed step. This isn't new for Patanjali; they've been warned before. Yet, they act as though the rules don't apply to them. Last November, they even promised the court they'd stop these false advertisements, but they've broken that promise. This situation leads us to ask why Patanjali seems to dodge the consequences of their actions. It's more than just one company's missteps; it's about whether our legal system can effectively hold influential individuals and their businesses accountable.

Patanjali has been falsely claiming through its advertisements that some of its products can permanently cure several diseases. The Supreme Court in its Tuesday’s directive to Patanjali Ayurveda banned the company from advertising its products until further decisions are made. The court, while noting that the public had been misled by such advertisements also expressed concerns over the Union government's lack of intervention in this matter, suggesting that there has been a notable absence of regulatory enforcement against deceptive advertising practices by the company. 

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The actions taken by the Supreme Court against Patanjali Ayurveda and Baba Ramdev are part of a longer history of controversies surrounding them. Notably, Baba Ramdev has faced legal challenges before, with the Government of Uttarakhand filing 100 cases against him for various offences. A significant portion of these, 81 cases to be exact, target Patanjali Yogpeeth and related entities in Haridwar for not adhering to the Zamindari Abolition and Land Reforms (ZALR) Act and the Indian Stamps Act. 

The advertising practices of Patanjali, particularly during critical times like the Covid-19 pandemic, are indeed startling. The company introduced 'Coronil,' claiming it could cure Covid-19, a statement that not only drew widespread attention but also significant criticism, including from the Indian Medical Association. Despite the controversy back in 2021, there seemed to be little consequence for such a false claim. The underlying reason for the lack of action appears to be Baba Ramdev's well-known connections with the ruling BJP government. This relationship was prominently displayed when 'Coronil' was launched, with the presence of significant political figures such as the then Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan and Union Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari. 

Another medicine from the company Divya Putrajeevak Beej has been in the news for misleading people aspiring to have a boy child. Despite the Supreme Court's recent contempt notice, Patanjali's website continues to promote this product as - "Beneficial for infertility and uterus related problems. If the seeds of putrajeevak and shivlingi are taken regularly then the causes of infertility and childlessness are treated". Numerous doctors have highlighted that even the name "Divya Putrajeevak Beej" itself misleadingly suggests that consuming the product could influence the birth of male children. The controversy surrounding "Divya Putrajeevak Beej" reached the halls of Parliament in 2015, where opposition members raised concerns about the product's misleading implications. In response, the Ministry of AYUSH defended the name of the product, attributing it to the herb after which it is named. 

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The issues with Patanjali extend beyond just one or two products. Currently, their website still claims that their "Divya Lipidom tablet" is effective in reducing cholesterol levels. This claim persists despite the Ministry of AYUSH previously advising some states to take action against Patanjali Ayurveda for unlawfully promoting products with the promise of curing diabetes, heart, and liver diseases, specifically citing three products: Lipidom, Livogrit, and Livamrit. 

Patanjali's contentious approach isn't limited to its product claims; their propaganda runs deeper. When the Supreme Court in November warned the company and its founder, Baba Ramdev, about making unfounded health claims, Ramdev's response was to deflect and escalate. He claimed a targeted propaganda campaign against Patanjali by the proponents of synthetic medicine, asserting that these groups deny the potential of alternative remedies to treat chronic conditions such as blood pressure, diabetes, and liver failure. Ramdev was quick to frame himself and his company as victims of a larger conspiracy, while boldly challenging the legitimacy of the Supreme Court's concerns through his press statement. 

Whenever questions are raised about Patanjali's products, the company's response strategy becomes evident: adopting a stance where offence is considered the best form of defence. They assert that their claims are backed by clinical evidence and boast of a database containing over ten million entries, purportedly showcasing real-world effectiveness. However, the credibility of a privately held, profit-driven company's internal database is questionable at best. What's truly astonishing in this entire case is the apparent lack of decisive action from the union government against the yoga guru or his enterprise. 

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Back in 2006, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare found itself compelled to issue a press statement in response to claims made by Baba Ramdev, which were widely reported in the media. Ramdev controversially asserted that yoga could cure AIDS and further claimed that AIDS could not be prevented through the use of condoms. In its statement, the ministry raised concerns that such claims could not only mislead the public but also potentially undermine the significant efforts made by social activists, volunteers, and organisations. Only a few years later, the yoga guru was again seen making another absurd statement in an interview where he said, “Homosexuality is the result of a sick mind and pranayam and yoga can cure a sick mind.”

Patanjali Ayurveda has faced scrutiny beyond just its advertising claims. For instance, their amla juice was once flagged by a state laboratory as unfit for consumption. The brand has been accused of using a fake FSSAI licence number to sell its noodle brand, including non-vegetable components in supposed vegetable products, and making exaggerated claims about curing infertility and cancer. These incidents raise a critical question: How does Baba Ramdev continue to operate his multimillion-dollar business amidst such controversies, seemingly without facing significant repercussions? The answer may not be straightforward but hints at a complex interplay of influence and power. Ramdev's visibility at high-profile events and his associations with prominent government figures, as seen during the Ram Mandir event in Ayodhya, suggest his clout within the power circle. 

He will continue his activities, relying on his distinctive approach and marketing strategies, until such time as regulatory authorities decisively intervene. However, with the electoral season approaching, the likelihood of immediate governmental action appears remote.