A deep dive into the Swami Ramdev vs IMA controversy
Everyday Ayurveda by Bhaswati Bhattacharya
In 1999, Swami Ramdev began teaching westernized Indian people yoga. Within three years, large stadiums in north India filled with Indians eager to learn pranayama, basic asanas, and how to use local spices and herbs to better their health. The yoga camps spread through India, then around the world. Within years his popularity spread to television. People tuned in to the Aastha channel to listen to him, not because he donned his hairy chest to the world while demonstrating complicated poses of yoga, but because his recommendations were effective for millions of people for whom mainstream medicine was not. Family members witnessed tangible benefits that RCTs and doctors don’t assess. People sat down at scheduled times around the planet to “do Baba Ramdev,” and partake in yoga and breathwork. Pranayama re-entered Indians’ vocabulary. Sales of remedies he recommended soared within hours of the telecast.
From a jungle location in 1999, he and his core team of 5 began to build a factory, then a school, a medical college, a research facility. After they had surpassed the Rs 12,000 crore annual revenue mark (about $1.7 million) in 2015, Ramdev began to influence political decisions made by lawmakers in the favor of herbal production. They liked his money, his command over people, his charisma, essentially what every politician needs. His Patanjali Yogpeeth (Trust) has now crossed $1.6 billion, rivaling Big Pharma players. This is where the problem starts, as he has money but also the support of the People of the second largest nation on the planet.
Fast forward to 2021. Ramdev was sitting in a private company meeting in May, not a public press conference, during which he read a message on his phone, in which he voices the words “…allopathy is such a stupid and diwalia (bankrupt) science …” It was captured on video, clipped strategically, and went viral. This video has enraged both allopaths and ayurvedic physicians who stand on different sides of the debate, fanned by the media and various stakeholders who love to watch wrestling matches.
The attack started with the IMA (Indian Medical Association), an NGO started by Christian missionaries of British India, sending an open letter on 22 May, challenging the Indian government to discipline Ramdev for his derogatory statement in this time of the pandemic, where the Epidemic Act requires all citizens to obey laws complying with medical directives.
The next day officials wrote a reprimanding letter to Ramdev. On 24 May he withdrew any statement that people might find offensive. Later that day Ramdev and Patanjali Yogpeeth wrote an open letter to IMA and pharmaceutical companies, with 25 rhetorical questions posited to the supporters and flag bearers of mainstream science and medicine. Those questions invite commentary by articulate but authentic experts of the sciences who also practice medicine. The IMA has not provided answers, primarily because they cannot. IMA represents only 260K of the nation’s 12 lakh physicians (about 20%), which ostensibly suppresses non-western approaches to medicine and patient-centered care. Indeed, IMA defends allopathy by attacking ayurveda.
Ramdev targeted allopathy for having few cures for the chronic diseases – which comprise most of today’s ailments. He has often mentioned that allopathy is only good for pain relief and infections, and lauds allopathy for surgeries and emergency care as its greatest contributions to the previous practices of medicine worldwide. This is what common people also understand. Suppression of the body’s symptoms is the usual mechanism of pharmaceuticals, sold with “unavoidable” side effects and complications. Most diseases are not cured by the real-world practice of allopathy, and medical scholars admit that most practices are not evidence-based.
The IMA vs Ramdev controversy is flaring due to the raging backdrop of the pandemic, which the Indian government is diligently trying to control. Rather than focus on the urgency of solutions for the pandemic, Ramdev’s rhetorical questions about allopathy not having answers for chronic diseases has hit a sore spot, as it is a non-urgent, worthy debate for another time. Other governments on the globe are emphasizing the approaches and tools of the medical establishment and pharma, the tests, vaccines, drugs. After many failures and no evidence-based approaches, the nations are gradually moving forward.
Ramdev points out that the perception of humans having no other remedies or useful procedures is mostly because minority medical systems are suppressed. Many nations in Africa and southeast Asia, as well as India, have traditional medical systems and local remedies, which receive no attention or exploration because they cannot compete with the hegemony of laws that suppress them. His research team published several clinical studies of ayurvedic medicine for Covid but were suppressed by rigid rules for providing evidence that apply to traditional systems but not to allopathic drugs. The media neither emphasizes non-conventional remedy research, and common people are led to believe that no other remedies or protocols exist. Vaccines for Covid have become the predominant strategy with huge publicity budgets. If traditional medicines showed the same side effects as the vaccines, they would be assumed banned. Who will ask why pharma companies are not demanded to provide the vaccines at cost, just as bullets and uniforms are during war?
However, Ramdev and his team of 500 scientists are smarter than they appear. Patanjali has already profited greatly from the pandemic in several ways: by donating in humanitarian gestures, by producing research papers, and monetarily by introducing Coronil, which has sold over 20 million units, using their best publicity and THE soft power of India – word-of-mouth.
But Ramdev’s war is not against the IMA. It is against the legions of pharmaceutical producers and their puppets of poor-quality yet qualified, licensed doctors who prescribe those pharmaceuticals. Most drugs have limited or low efficacy but are protected by legal structures that regulate to protect Big Pharma at the expense of the People. Evidence that shows a medicine does not work on large portions of the population is suppressed. Everyone in the chain of selling pharmaceuticals lives on money made by propagating the industry, without any guilt of personally harming anyone. Clever marketing convinces them pharmaceuticals are part of a worthy cause. Ostensibly, the physician prescribed a needed medicine to a patient. But under the surface there is a mafia.
The ancient texts of Ayurveda warn again and again that physicians must make the medicines that go into patients’ hands and bodies. The ethics of handing a medicine to someone that does not work is a check against adulteration and spurious contents. If you couldn’t hand a preparation to your most beloved, you can’t hand it to a patient. This is the hope. Even today, people devoted to traditional medicines know that the medicine prepared by the physician is better than any mass-made purchase.
Ramdev is not fighting with the competent physicians who focus on patient-centered care. He is creating a ground-swell to go after the pharma mafia. That is why he gets on TV and does not send one of his articulate research scientists. He uses his charisma to bring awareness to the People, not technical rubric. This population-driven movement transformed India from slavery 80 years ago. The millennials have never felt it, so they do not know the power of Freedom Fighters.
Fighting for Health Freedom and Truth about Pharma will transform the ability of countries to afford healthcare for their people. Reducing the power of the hegemonic pharmaceutical lobby will allow the poor to get the medicine they need, and detach the nefarious deeds that Big Pharma does with their huge profits.
As the People, our next steps should be to uncover the data behind Big Pharma’s profiteering, demand transparency, and translate technical papers already in the research literature to show people in common language how a drug works.
When we march for breast cancer, affecting 1 in 9 women, and send donations to foundations that use pharmaceutical monies to do research on drugs, we must remember that breast cancer does NOT affect 8 in 9 women. Non-pharmaceuticals that preserve health can prevent cancers and are powerful education. When evidence shows that statins predispose patients to serious neurological disease, we must help the People understand what the mediocre doctor does not convey. When remdesivir, ivermectin, and hydroxychloroquine do not have evidence by mainstream medicine standards, why are we using them? Big Pharma has convinced us.
The next steps are to demand lawmakers to cap pricing of pharmaceuticals. For months, wholesale drug sellers provided remdesivir to physicians at Rs.740 for a 100mg tablet, who then sold them in Indian hospitals and clinics for Rs.5000. This promoted hospitals and private physicians to support remdesivir. Once the data showed its lack of efficacy, officials were convinced to suppress findings for as long as possible, quietly taking their own family away from the drug, but happily providing it to the affording buyer.
Governments must be pressured to disallow the monopoly that pharmaceuticals have, convincing us it is the best medical option. The People must be informed about all health options and not falsely told that synthetic laboratory-engineered pills are the only option. Lying to the People about their health options must stop. States can and must take back the power of making laws against economics that hurt the people. This is what Ramdev is doing, to take back the Right to Health that ancient wisemen knew, that modern lawmakers have been too weak to assert into Law.
The South Asia Times Columnist Dr. Bhaswati Bhattacharya is a Fulbright Specialist 2018‐2023 in Public Health and Clinical Asst Professor of Medicine, Weill Cornell Medical College, New York. Her bestselling book Everyday Ayurveda is published by Penguin Random House. [email protected] | www.drbhaswati.com