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Lucrative mix

Print edition : Jul 01, 2011 T+T-

Baba Ramdev's ayurvedic empire has turned his yoga following into his consumer base.

in Haridwar

ON the cloudy and extremely humid morning of June 7, a bunch of young people wearing Islamic caps loudly chanted the slogan of Vande Mataram as their leader, a 50-plus Muslim cleric, led them to the yagyashala of the Patanjali Yogpeeth, Baba Ramdev's multi-acre ashram in Haridwar. Most of the young men were bush-shirted and wore denims and trousers, and the only marker of their religious identity was their caps and a banner they were holding, which read Muslim Rashtriya Manch. They had come to support Baba Ramdev in his indefinite hunger strike against corruption, which shifted to his ashram from Ramlila maidan in New Delhi after the police cracked down on the gathering in the early hours of June 5.

Baba Ramdev's fast has been criticised as being sectarian and backed, probably prompted, by the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The Muslim Rashtriya Manch's support to Baba Ramdev seemed intended to dismiss these allegations, and the cleric leading the group called on all Indian Muslims to support the Baba, saying that corruption was the root cause of all problems in the country, including communalism. He went on to say that Muslims would not hesitate to join Ramdev's movement just because he was a Hindu yogi. Muslims, in fact, should be thankful to Hindus, as they use schools, colleges and hospitals run by Hindu trusts, he explained. Lying on a bed close by, Baba Ramdev nodded in agreement.

Around 50 metres from the podium, the men who came as supporters of the Muslim Rashtriya Manch were chatting without paying much attention to what their leader was saying though they kept clapping whenever his voice rose. I cannot say much. I am here because I am related to Maulwi Saheb [the cleric]. He asked us to be here, said one supporter when asked about the Muslim organisation. Another said, I am a college student. A friend of mine called me, so I came. In fact, most of those who had come with the cleric knew hardly anything about the Muslim Rashtriya Manch. One person who knew a little more gave away the details rather casually. He works with the BJP and has been in BJP campaigns for a long time now, he said, referring to the leader.

The open support of the RSS, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the BJP has propelled the Ramdev movement to where it stands now. It has captured the national imagination through televised proceedings. Seen in the context of Anna Hazare's fast and the government's submission, Ramdev's movement has been appropriately timed, presumably on the expectation that the government will succumb once again to pressure. The government, though it removed Ramdev from Delhi, seems worried. Indeed, this was quite clear in the way Union Ministers tried to persuade Ramdev not to go on a hunger strike.

What is it that forces the government to accord so much significance to a yoga guru? What is it that makes the RSS, the VHP and the BJP rally behind him? What made him a national figure?

Ramdev, originally, Ramkrishna Yadav, was born in Ali Saiyadpur village in Mahendragarh district of Haryana in 1965. According to many biographies, he dropped out of school after the eighth grade to train in Sanskrit and yoga in a local gurukul. Here he met Balkrishna, with whom he formed a lasting bond. The two established their Kripalu Bagh Ashram in 1995 at Kankhal colony in Haridwar. Ramkrishna Yadav became a sanyasi and started teaching yoga and making ayurvedic medicines as Baba Ramdev.

Now he runs several trusts, gurukuls and foundations and conducts yoga camps and classes throughout the world. He is known for his focus on pranayama, the ancient breathing exercises that are an integral part of yoga. Ramdev recognised the usefulness of television quite early, and his yoga sessions, televised since 2005, catapulted him into the big league. His aides claim that he is now watched by at least 200 crore people throughout the world. All this at a relatively young age for a yogi. He turned 45 last year.

In a country like India, where access to good and affordable health services is a dream for many, his yoga classes claiming to cure a range of diseases, from kidney ailments, obesity and hair loss to cancer and AIDS, progressively grew in popularity. His television shows, where he prescribed different breathing exercises for different diseases and openly criticised soft drinks and other multinational products found more and more viewership among conservative middle-class households, especially in northern India. His yoga techniques became more credible in the eyes of the public as he claimed to have cured his own paralysis through pranayama. Along with this, he invoked the Puranas and the Vedas and advocated vegetarianism.

While teaching yoga, he invoked Rama and the Ramayana and Hindu myths at regular intervals. It was only in the beginning of the last decade that he started talking about issues plaguing the Indian system. By this time he had gathered huge support through his yogic exercises. He used his classes to preach against corruption and black money in the system and occasionally to promote a swadeshi ideology that was welcomed by the saffron parties. In line with Hindutva, he campaigned against cow slaughter and advocated Hindi education, ridiculed the English language, proclaimed homosexuality a curable disease, announced that Bollywood actresses were of loose character, and found the origins of all scientific practices in ancient India.

It was quite clear to many that the Baba used his spiritual veneer to nurture political ambitions. Predictably, in 2009, he announced that he would launch a political party the Bharat Swabhiman to cleanse the system. Initially, he said the party would contest elections but then changed his stand and said he would focus on the issues of black money and corruption and politically address them through his yoga classes and his political party. In order to do this, he started to travel more frequently to the remote corners of the country, neglected by mainstream political parties, to teach yoga.

Ayurvedic empire

Ramdev's ayurvedic empire has turned his yoga following into his consumers. He admits that it is worth Rs.1,100 crore. He says he also receives donations from his supporters because his followers believe in him. He shifted his ashram from Kankhal to the sprawling campus of the Patanjali Yogpeeth in 2006, now the centre of his empire in Haridwar. Across the road, phase II of the Yogpeeth, almost near completion, will have an auditorium, a dharamshala and, most importantly, 320 residential flats to be sold to retired people. Here, Ramdev also operates a medical facility that includes a multi-crore healing unit, a yoga research centre, a university and an ayurvedic pharmacy. There is also a Patanjali Food and Herbal Park in the vicinity.

The empire is thoroughly bureaucratised. According to Balkrishna, now an acharya and Ramdev's closest aide and the Patanjali Trust's general secretary, Patanjali has over 10 lakh trained teachers in India and over one lakh yoga classes are held daily. Patanjali Yog Samitis, which are in charge of yoga classes, and Bharat Swabhiman Committees, which propagate Ramdev's politics, campaign against corruption and preach swadeshi, have been established in the districts, tehsils and villages. This network extends even to the north-eastern part of India. Initially, if a follower paid more than Rs.1 lakh as donation, he was given a lifetime membership.

The Haridwar campus alone has more than 300 volunteers who have left their homes and pledged bachelorhood to serve the Baba's mission. The mission, Balkrishna says, is to reach the whole of India and create a healthy India.

Ramdev had set up the Divya Yog Mandir Trust to manufacture herbal products and ayurvedic medicines. However, today it sells almost everything that can be bracketed under fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG). Toothpastes, talcum powders, soaps, shampoos, hair oil, biscuits, juices, bottled water (against which he led a huge campaign in his initial years as a sadhu), energy boosters, aphrodisiacs, and many other products, which he tries to sell in his yoga classes, are produced in Ramdev's factories.

The Patanjali Trust has branches in the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Mauritius, Nepal and Tanzania and it is in the process of setting up business in Thailand and South Africa. Recently, the trust bought an island called Little Cumbrae in the U.K. for about 2 million. The pharmacy's annual turnover is said to be over Rs.500 crore. His Haridwar ashram receives a large number of people from all over the country, who stay at his posh guest houses. Instead of a bill, the guest gets a donation receipt.

As Ramdev's ayurvedic empire grew in size, he faced a series of allegations. In 2005, the yoga guru, who by then had turned into a cult figure, had a bitter battle with Communist Party of India (Marxist) Polit Bureau member Brinda Karat, who accused him of using human skulls and animal parts to manufacture ayurvedic medicines, particularly those aimed at curing sex-related ailments, in his Haridwar pharmacy. Ramdev accused her of protecting corporate interests. The Sangh Parivar backed him strongly in that dispute.

He has also been accused of getting around 644 acres (one acre is 0.4 hectare), in two instalments, for his ashram at throwaway prices from the Uttarakhand government under Chief Minister B.C. Khanduri and the present Chief Minister, Romesh Pokhriyal Nishank, both from the BJP. The land for the ashram was cultivable, and the farmers who owned it were allegedly forced to surrender their plots, according to a national daily. The daily also accused the Patanjali Trust of illegally encroaching on plots in the vicinity. Bahujan Samaj Party MLA from Haridwar Surinder Rakesh said that the land was given to Ramdev's institution at a price that was much below the market rates. He said that at some places, Ramdev's men occupied land in an unauthorised manner, but the BSP had it vacated. Ramdev has also been accused of violating labour norms in his factories.

The Patanjali Yogpeeth has declared its immediate mission on its website, which is a mix of spiritual and political targets. The five targets that it wants to achieve is to ensure 100% voting, 100% nationalistic thinking, 100% total boycott of foreign companies and complete support to swadeshi, 100% organisation of patriots, and to make a healthy, prosperous and cultured' Bharat by using yoga. Is it far-fetched to detect in all this a design to expand his ayurvedic industry?

Ramdev is an ideal example of how nationalism, spiritualism and capitalism not just coexist but also complement each other. His casual talk and rustic behaviour, which have great appeal in villages and small towns, have proved to be effective managerial idioms.

These days he swishes around in chartered private planes or a caravan of secured cars, deals with government officials in private, and enjoys the support of people who have significant credentials. Yet, he thrives as a seer who commands a lot of respect from a large number of people. And because of this, Ramdev's capitalist project premised upon the superiority of the Indian medical science over Western sciences is growing at an unprecedented rate. And precisely because of this, the anti-corruption movement launched by Ramdev is seen by many critics as a consolidation of Ramdev's consumers, achieved efficiently through a jingoistic rhetoric.