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SC Reprimands Baba Ramdev, Balakrishna and Centre on “Misleading Ads”

SC Reprimands Baba Ramdev, Balakrishna and Centre on “Misleading Ads”

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Manas Dasgupta

NEW DELHI, Apr 2: Yoga Guru Baba Ramdev, the co-founder of Patanjali Ayurved, along with the top executive of the company Acharya Balakrishna, and the central government were at the receiving end on Tuesday as the Supreme Court reprimanded them during a hearing on misleading advertisements, including those that disparage modern medicine and medical practitioners.

Ramdev and Balakrishna were rapped for “absolute defiance” after filing improper versions of affidavits demanded by the court, while the central government  was asked why it “chose to keep its eyes shut” when  Patanjali Ayurved “tom-tommed” claiming that the Western medicines offered no protection against the COVID-19 virus.

A bench of Justice Hima Kohli and Justice Ahsanuddin Amanullah also asked the Ministry of AYUSH why it had not acted against Patanjali after “shocking” ads belittling contemporary medicine. The court turned the heat a notch higher on Baba Ramdev, self-styled yoga guru and Patanjali’s co-founder, by threatening him with perjury proceedings on top of the contempt action hanging over him.

The bench told the government represented by Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, to file a detailed affidavit to “dispel the impression” that the government machinery, both at the Central and State levels, were complicit with Patanjali. The court asked why the government did not inform the public, especially during the critical months of the pandemic in 2020 and 2021, that the products advertised by Patanjali were supplementary to the main medication.

“While the proposed contemnors (Patanjali Ayurved, its managing director Balakrishna, and Baba Ramdev) were going to town saying this was the answer and there was nothing else in modern medical science… why did you choose to keep your eyes shut while they tom-tommed?” Justice Kohli asked Mr Mehta. The court said the proposed contemnors were taking the contempt proceedings “too lightly”.

It expressed dissatisfaction with the affidavits filed by Patanjali and Mr Balakrishna, expressing their apologies for publishing misleading advertisements in violation of the Drugs and Magic Remedies (Objectionable Advertisements) Act, 1954 despite an undertaking given to the apex court on November 21, 2023.

“We have questions for AYUSH…COVID was in 2022 and you (the centre) stated these (ayurvedic medicines) were, at best, a supplement to the main (the vaccines)… but this was not publicised… you did nothing to make this known. It was a critical period,” Justice Kohli said sternly.

This is the second time in three months the centre has been rebuked; in February, the Supreme Court said “the government is sitting with its eyes closed” and demanded immediate action against “false” and “misleading” advertisements. “This is very unfortunate…” the court had said then. The court then also urged the centre to find a remedy to the issue of misleading medical ads.

On Tuesday, the court ripped into Ramdev and Balakrishna for the causal manner in which an affidavit – offering an unconditional apology for the ads – was filed last month. A furious court called the affidavit “indefensible” and “humbug,” and even suggested Patanjali Ayurved could be guilt of perjury.

“You should have made sure the solemn undertaking should have been in letter and spirit. We can also say we are ‘sorry’… for not accepting it (the apology)… it is more of a lip service,” the court said. The court was angered that Patanjali had, prima facie, continued to run ads ruled as misleading last year. The claim that the company’s media unit was unaware of the court order was dismissed.

“…every order passed by courts across the country has to be respected. This is absolute defiance,” the bench said after Patanjali Ayurved’s lawyer folded his hands in apology. “You have to abide by every undertaking given to the court… and you have broken every barrier,” a clearly displeased court told both Ramdev and Balakrishna, who were ordered to be present.

Responding to the court’s strong words, Solicitor-General Tushar Mehta acknowledged “what has happened should not have happened”. “It appears (that) the way the affidavits should have come… it has not come,” he told the court, underlining, however, that the centre could not take sides. “What I am suggesting is… if Your Lordships permit… then I can sit with the counsel (for Patanjali) and (decide) what can be done,” he continued, to which the court said, “We will decide that.”

Ramdev and Balakrishna have been given “one last chance” and must file the affidavits, in a proper manner, in one week. They must also present when the court hears this matter next – on April 10.

The top court is hearing a contempt case against Patanjali Ayurved over publication of advertisements making false claims about its products and their medical efficacy. On February 27 the court had directed Patanjali to stop all electronic and print ads giving misleading information, with immediate effect.

On Tuesday, Justice Kohli said the apologies of the company and its managing director were mere “lip-service”, perfunctory at best. They had even argued that the 1954 law was “archaic.” “So, are you saying that a law need not be complied with because you think it archaic? As long as a law remains a law, it has to be followed,” Justice Kohli addressed senior advocate Vipin Sanghi, for Patanjali Ayurved and Mr Balakrishna.

Baba Ramdev was in the courtroom standing behind his counsel, senior advocate Balbir Singh. Mr Balakrishna was beside him. The court had directed their presence in its previous order on March 19. Mr Singh said his client had been unable to file an affidavit in response to the court’s contempt notice to him on March 19. Mr Singh said the affidavit was “ready,” but the yoga guru had come with the hope of personally apologising to the court.

“Being a co-founder, you (Ramdev) were well aware of the November 21 order. For you to go like a shot and hold a press conference within 24 hours of the court order shows you were cognisant of it, and you flouted it,” Justice Kohli addressed Mr Singh.

On November 21, the apex court had directed the company to not make any “casual statements” to the print or electronic media about the efficacy of their medicinal products or indulge in any disparaging statements about other disciplines of medicine like allopathy.

Justice Amanullah said Mr Ramdev showed “absolute defiance” if he had continued to endorse or promote products despite legal advice. “Do you think you can write anything for an apology and get away with it. We are not so magnanimous, especially in contempt cases,” Justice Amanullah told Baba Ramdev’s lawyers.

The court also raised questions about certain discrepancies in the affidavit handed over to the Bench by the yoga guru’s legal team. Justice Amanullah told Mr Singh that his client may have to face perjury proceedings. “Be prepared for all consequences,” the judge told the senior lawyer. The court, on Mr Mehta’s suggestion, gave the proposed contemnors a week’s time as a last opportunity to file fresh affidavits in the contempt case. The court listed the case on May 10.

The case began last year after the Indian Medical Association filed a petition claiming a smear campaign by Baba Ramdev against the Covid vaccination drive and modern medicine.

The Bench had initiated contempt proceedings against Patanjali Ayurved and Mr Balakrishna on February 27 for violating an assurance that they would refrain from advertising or branding products as “permanent relief” for diseases like obesity, blood pressure, asthma, etc, in violation of the 1954 Act.




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