How big is Baba Ramdev’s writ? AL FRESCO
No bigger godman or yogi looms larger on the Indian scene today than Baba Ramdev — many previous ones, from Maharishi Mahesh Yogi to Dhirendra Bhramachari to Bhagwan Rajneesh aka Osha, can’t hold a candle to his lights. In a salivating new millennium twist to earlier healers of body and soul, Ramdev has scaled up spiritual therapy into an unprecedented retail empire in recent years.
Revenues of his Patanjali Ayurveda, purveyors of more than 500 products from shampoos and ghee to noodles and “swadeshi” jeans, were estimated at ~10,000 crore this year, growing at 100 per
cent annually and spooking the likes of ITC, Dabur, Hindustan Unilever and Colgate-Palmolive. “Colgate ka gate bhi band hoga, Pantene ka to pant gila hone wala hai, Unilever ka lever bhi baithega…” (Colgate will shut its gates, Pantene will wet its pants, Unilever’s lever will break down) he announced in an attack on his competitors not long ago.
How a sickly village boy from a dirt poor corner of Haryana metamorphosed into a fast moving consumer goods giant and a television star is not only the stuff of corporate might cresting a wave of religiosity but a cracking good tale. The bushybearded, saffron-clad yogi’s grinning visage is writ above glow signs announcing “BabaRamdevka Mega Store” everywhere but his life story is the subject of a legal writ. Earlier this month, he moved a Delhi district court restraining the publication of a gripping biography, Godman to Tycoon: The Untold Story of Baba Ramdev by Mumbai-based journalist Priyanka Pathak-Narain (Juggernaut; ~299).
Ms Pathak-Narain spent ten years piecing together the tale, interviewing not only Ramdev but his family, followers, associates and adversaries. (She appends 25 pages of source notes at the end of a slim volume.) It is a chronicle of astonishing gumption and reinvention; and of bitter intrigue, takeover battles of ashrams to TV channels, forays into national politics, feuds, falling outs and, yes, crime.
From selling chawanprash on a bicycle in Haridwar to running phenomenally successful yoga camps and Ayurveda outlets (consultations are free but the medicines are not) how did he become a “Pied Piper who could make his stomach churn and ripple, wrap his legs around his neck and dazzle viewers with dreams of eternal youth and instant good health.”
For every ally Ram dev lost, found and dumped, he alsomade enemies. Among the mysteries Ms PathakNarain uncovers are the murder of Swami Yogananda, an early Ramdev supporter, and the disappearance of Ramdev’s “saintly” guru, Shankar Dev; of his financial backers such as K KP it tie and Sarvan Pod dar( the latter donated a Scottish island to his UK trust); investigations into charges of sales tax evasion; and his forays into high politics, wooing Mulayam Singh Yadav, teaming up with Anna Hazare, and taking on CPI(M)’s Brinda Karat who alleged the use of human and animal bones in his medicines.
Some details of the Ramdev story— for instance the year of his birth —are lost in his transformation from impoverished village lad to a powerful guru. His godman status also prohibits him from any direct pecuniary connection; he owns no part of Patanjali Ayurveda and allied enterprises; yet Acharya Balkrishna, his chief aide, is the twenty-sixth richest Indian, worth ~25,600 crore.
To create as dispassionate a narrative the author says that she principally told Ramdev’s story through the voices of those who knew him. Nevertheless, the injunction against her book calls it defamatory and damaging on several counts, citing, among other objections, a Reuters report alleging that the yogi “received $46 mn in land allocations and discounts from BJP-led state governments” and that in some Haryana villages Baba Ramdev is popularly known as “Lala Ramdev”.
Restraint orders against books are an old, dishonoured practice, in part because of the glacial pace at which lower courts move. The late Khushwant Singh had to battle it out for years with Maneka Gandhi over the publication of his memoir; more recently, Jayalalithaa tried to suppress a book on her life and American Indologist Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History was not only withdrawn from bookshops but pulped, raising an major outcry against growing curbs on freedom of expression.
Juggernaut publisher Chiki Sarkar has appealed the Ramdev writ and is determined to fight it, taking it to the high court which has a better and faster record in giving “great judgements…on such issues.” She does not believe political dispensations influence court decisions — “The Ramdev injunction could have happened at any time.”
As for Priyanka Pathak-Narain, she is confident that her story of Baba Ramdev will reach a wider public. This week she told me: “The wonderful thing about being a journalist is that when someone tries to muzzle your work, it’s a badge of honour. You know you’ve done something right.”