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Why Ramdev's Supreme Court Apology Falls Short in Patanjali Case

While the Supreme Court has come down heavily on Ramdev in the Patanjali case, it is important to remind ourselves that this is not just a simple case of misleading advertisements; this is a massive case of breach of public trust.

By Varghese George
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Ramdev - Supreme Court

Yoga guru Ramdev along with his associate Balkrishna | Original photo courtesy: Patanjali | Digital Art: The Probe team

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The saga of Ramdev, a yoga guru who leveraged his political ties for commercial gains at the expense of public trust, has been a topic of much discussion. The Supreme Court recently delivered a stern rebuke to Patanjali Ayurved, along with its founder Ramdev and Managing Director Acharya Balkrishna, by issuing a contempt notice over misleading advertisements. Following this, both Ramdev and Balkrishna extended an "unconditional apology" to the Supreme Court on Tuesday, acknowledging their oversight in submitting the necessary affidavits in the case. But in turn, unimpressed by their apology, the apex court warned the duo to brace themselves for further consequences. The court also expressed its displeasure toward the Patanjali MD's critique of the Drugs and Cosmetics (Magic Remedies) Act, dismissing it as archaic.

This is not the first time the Supreme Court has expressed its displeasure with an apology tendered by Ramdev. Last month, the court refused to accept Patanjali Ayurved's apology, saying that the court was not happy with it. The crux of the matter, however, is straightforward: it transcends the individual—Baba Ramdev—and the sprawling enterprise he has established, spanning healthcare, nutrition, beauty, and books. At the heart of this issue lies the erosion of public trust that Ramdev and his ventures seem to have compromised. This case is not merely about missteps or misguided statements; it's a narrative of unchecked arrogance and a belief in impunity, cultivated over years of inaction by authorities. Ramdev, frequently surrounded by ministers and political leaders, has made bold, unfactual claims without being questioned, creating a situation where people think everything he says must be true.

Patanjali's audacious claims in its advertising—that its products can completely eliminate various diseases—have raised eyebrows, especially during the critical moments of the Covid-19 pandemic. The company's introduction of 'Coronil,' touted as a cure for Covid-19, is particularly alarming. What's more perplexing is the government's silence amid this storm of misinformation spread through media channels, social networks, and even endorsed by influencers and celebrities. The Supreme Court on Tuesday also questioned the government's inaction—why it chose to overlook Ramdev and Patanjali Ayurved's misleading statements and false propaganda regarding the so-called miraculous Covid-19 remedy. Why did the government choose to sit with its eyes shut, the apex court had asked earlier.

Ramdev and Patanjali Ayurved have taken extraordinary steps to defend their misleading advertising campaigns, even continuing to air ads deemed deceptive by claiming ignorance of legal prohibitions. This defence stretches credulity and brings to the fore a broader issue highlighted by the Supreme Court itself: Ramdev and his enterprise have, in essence, “taken the country for a ride” with their fake claims. However, the heart of the matter extends beyond Ramdev's personal responsibility to a larger concern about the role of regulatory oversight and the implicit endorsement these acts receive when authorities remain silent.

Claims made by a figure as influential as Ramdev are not merely absorbed by his direct followers but resonate across a wider audience. This problem is compounded when government officials, by their passive stance or association, appear to lend credence to these claims, inadvertently suggesting that there might be merit to Ramdev's statements. This situation is so dangerous, particularly in situations where individuals have forsaken proven medical treatments in favour of Patanjali's products, after being misled by the illusion of government backing for the propaganda. The potential real-world consequences of such misinformation, especially during a health crisis like the Covid-19 pandemic, are chilling to even think about. How many lives could have been lost to this corporate misinformation campaign that had gotten an informal government stamp?

In the peak of the pandemic in 2020, national media reported that Patanjali sold 25 lakh Coronil kits, amounting to Rs 250 crores, in merely four months. Without delving further, focusing on this period alone raises serious questions. Clearly, those who purchased these kits intended to use them, likely as an alternative to established, evidence-based Covid-19 treatments. The critical concerns that emerge include how many individuals abandoned proven medical therapies for Coronil, the number who faced grave health crises or even mortality due to delaying or forgoing standard medical care in accordance with WHO guidelines. To assess the extent of the impact such false propaganda has had on human lives, the government should have ordered a thorough investigation and held the company and its promoters criminally liable. However, what happened was contrary to that. 

A year later, in 2021, the saga continued to provoke outcry, with the Indian Medical Association (IMA) demanding a response from the then Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan for endorsing Coronil, especially a day following the WHO's declaration denying any review or approval of traditional medicines for Covid-19 treatment. The minister’s presence at the Coronil launch—heralded by Patanjali as the debut of the first 'evidence-based' Covid-19 remedy, purportedly certified by the Ayush Ministry under WHO norms—made millions believe that Ramdev has finally found a cure for Covid-19. The event was also graced by Minister of Road Transport and Highways Nitin Gadkari. 

The narrative being spun around recent developments in Baba Ramdev and Patanjali Ayurved's case risks trivialising it as simply about misleading advertising, thereby overshadowing the deep consequences on human lives and the erosion of public trust. As this case progresses, the possibility of fines or even a small jail term for the promoters may be an outcome, that is if the judiciary really takes a strong stance. Yet, this begs a larger question: does even such a verdict equate to justice?

This case shouldn’t just be discussed in the context of Ramdev and Patanjali Ayurved alone. It extends to the accountability of those in positions of power who lent credence to his campaign of misinformation. If, as previously mentioned by the Supreme Court, Ramdev and his company have indeed taken the country for a ride, then it is important to assess the tangible harm inflicted by this breach of trust. Ramdev may believe that an earnest apology coupled with a vigorous legal defence will suffice to shield him from the full weight of the law, allowing a return to business as usual. However, the critical issue remains unaddressed: will there be a reckoning for the violation of public trust?

When will this discourse shift towards a conversation about the breach of trust and its impact on human lives? The judiciary must catch the bull by its horns and address the issue of collusion between a powerful company and those in positions of power. It should look at how a man, who commanded the faith and support of his followers, allied with a party that thrives on religion and faith, and in return, how this alliance shattered the common man’s confidence and caused suffering to many.

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