By Neeraj Mahajan
A media-savvy yoga teacher, peddler of Ayurvedic remedies, religious guru, self-styled social reformist or overambitious but unsuccessful political aspirant — Ramdev is nothing but a bundle of confusion, stretched too far.
One thing he knows best is to grab the news headlines. It might be by raising his voice against corruption, black money stored in safe havens abroad, claiming to cure AIDS or wearing ladies salwar – who cares.
Meet India’s most controversial television lifestyle guru. Someone who has been officially ordered by the Indian Union Health Ministry to ‘cease and desist’ from making claims that sex education should be replaced by yoga, he is always skirting one controversy after another.
Here is a man who does not practice what he preaches.
Till a few months back he kept saying that he has no political ambitions, but quickly jumped to grab the status of a cabinet minister in Haryana. Ramdev’s hidden lifetime dream got fulfilled when the Khattar government named him as its brand ambassador and announced a public function in Panchkula on April 21 to honor him and promote yoga and Ayurveda in Haryana.
Usually, cabinet ministers are entitled to a basic salary of Rs. 40,000 plus allowances worth Rs. 30,000 and an after retirement pension between Rs. 7,500 to Rs 10,000 depending on the duration of service. Ramdev may not draw a salary from the Haryana government, but his status of a cabinet minister entitles him to a number of perks. These include official accommodation, housing allowances; personal security; two official state cars, secretarial staff, unlimited phone calls, free electricity, water and stay at government-owned circuit and guest houses.
Starting life from a scratch as Ramkishan Yadav an eighth standard pass from Mahendragarh district of Haryana, he joined a yogic monastery. Fifteen years ago– as a struggling yoga teacher Ramdev could be seen riding a bicycle on the streets of Haridwar, today he is among the wealthiest salesman of yoga having assets worth Rs. 13 billion. Curiously the inventory of medicines produced by his company includes ‘Divya Putrajeevak Beej’ — a medicine that makes women give birth to male children.
Ramdev’s climb to fame started mainly because of a yoga program on television. It helped him exploit the power and reach of television to take yoga and meditation to each and every household. Overnight a number of celebrities including Amitabh Bachchan and Shilpa Shetty started descending at his doorstep. It helped Ramdev build an empire worth millions.
Patanjali Yogpeeth in Haridwar (Uttarakhand) Pic : Alok Prasad
Today Ramdev manages Patanjali Yogpeeth Trust worth Rs. 2,000 crore; a 100-bed hospital, a university, an Ayurveda college, real estate business, and manufacturing of a range of Ayurvedic and medicinal products under the brand name Patanjali in Haridwar. It has a dedicated network of about 4,000 franchise stores selling soaps, oils, breakfast cereals, cow urine, and biscuits.
Ramdev almost became synonymous with Yoga and Ayurveda. His formula for the upliftment of mind, body and soul seemed to be working in India and abroad but not without attracting a string of controversies.
Mired in Controversy:
Ramdev first brush with controversy started when he ran foul of the US FDA, which denied him permission to sell his products in USA. The FDA’s allegations included misbranding as well as selling unlisted and unapproved products.
Tehelka magazine reported financial irregularities including sales tax evasion, stealing of electricity for commercial use and tax evasion by Ramdev’s trusts.
In 2006 Brinda Karat, a Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader accused Ramdev’s Divya Pharmacy of mixing human and animal bones in their medicines. Samples of the medicines tested at government laboratories confirmed the presence of animal parts. Later a report from another government laboratory exonerated him.
Ramdev has been making unsubstantiated claims to ‘cure’ prostate, brain tumor, leukemia, AIDS and breast cancer (within six to nine months).
But this does not stop Ramdev from issuing controversial statements like: sex education should be replaced by yoga education in schools, or for that matter a claim to “cure” homosexuality within six months.
But the biggest controversy erupted when charges Ramdev’s Patanjali Yog Peeth was alleged to have grabbed over 2.98 hectares of government, as well as farmland. There were also other allegations of forceful land grab from farmers against the trusts managed by him.
The Uttarakhand Government registered 81 cases against Patanjali and its sister Trusts for violating the Zamindari Abolition and Land Reforms (ZALR) Act and Indian Stamps Act. These included cases for encroaching 7.8 acres of gram sabha and Government land in villages Shantarshah and Aurangabad by the Trust in Haridwar. Many properties held by the Patanjali trust turned out to be benami transactions, and there was no trace of the owners.
Sudhakar Shetty was the owner of Deepa Bar & Restaurant –one of the most notorious joints in Vile Parle (West) Mumbai known for shootouts, betting and nightlife activities. That is till he suddenly had a change of heart and decided to gift the 8,000 sq ft property worth Rs 400 million to Ramdev’s Patanjali Yogapeeth.
Almost under similar circumstances Sunita Poddar, from Scotland who lost six-and-a-half kilos in six days because of yoga and meditation techniques under Ramdev guidance gifted an island to the yoga guru. Poddar, 49, whom Ramdev used to address as Mataji became such a big fan that she cajoled her husband Sam into buying a little island near Glasgow, that she could donate to Ramdev.
Today Both Deepa Bar in Mumbai and £2 million Little Cumbrae Island in Scotland spread over 1.25 sq. km. along with the 13th century castle on it — are part of Ramdev’s empire.
Gatecrash into politics:
Having satisfied his material needs Ramdev’s comedy of errors started when he started gyrating towards social and political life.
Somewhere down the line Ramdev crossed the fine line between a TV friendly yoga teacher or healer and spiritual leader or spokesman of Hindu religion. “People think 100 times before talking against Islam, but when it comes to Hinduism, no one says anything. It has become a hobby to denigrate Hindu Gods and Goddesses…” Ramdev said in a statement calling for a social boycott of Aamir Khan’s movie ‘PK’.
Ramdev has been desperately trying to enter the politics for the last five years or so but without success. His maiden attempt at politics was through ‘Bharat Swabhiman’ floated in 2010 with over-ambitious plans to contest every seat in the General elections. But within a year he dropped the idea saying that he had no intention of forming a political party or of entering politics directly. Instead, he decided to influence politics.
Ramdev then tried to organize rallies at Ramlila Maidan in Delhi. Initially, he managed to rope in Anna Hazare, Arvind Kejriwal, Kiran Bedi, Swami Agnivesh and Ram Jethmalani, but the movement turned out to be a non-starter.
Not to be let down, Ramdev floated another organization called the Bharat Swabhiman Trust. Ramdev wanted Bharat Swabhiman to contest some constituencies and form alliances with some other parties in the 2014 general elections. But the election commission of India (EC) played spoilsport – it received complaints that Bharat Swabhiman Trust, Divya Yog, and Patanjali Yogpeeth—were funding political party campaigns.
Sensing a popular support in favor of BJP Ramdev decided to hitch his wagon with the BJP in the 2014 general elections. Ramdev tried to pull crowds by organizing yoga camps coinciding with the election campaign. But the Election Commission of India (ECI) got a whiff and restrained him from organizing politically motivated camps.
Ramdev hit the jackpot this time when the BJP came to power both at the Centre and Haryana where the government decided to repay the favor by appointing him the state’s brand ambassador.
Haryana Health Minister Anil Vij visited Ramdev’s Patanjali Yogpeeth at Haridwar to work out the modalities.
Already Haryana government has made yoga compulsory in schools. It proposes to build 6,500 ‘yogshalas’ in the state and send Anganwari workers, as well as physical education teachers for yoga training to the Patanjali Yogpeeth in Haridwar. Ramdev will also help the government develop an ‘herbal forest’, ayurvedic university and start Ayush departments in state hospitals.
Ramdev is certainly not the first Godman to seek political power. Dhirendra Brahmachari was a favorite of Indira Gandhi while Chandra Swami could walk in unannounced in PV Narasimha Rao.
According to Newton’s laws of gravity in physics – what goes up, has to come down, nothing is permanent or constant in life or politics. Till such time, Ramdev is enjoying all the perks of political power without the headaches of electoral politics.