Beyond the Battle of Baba vs Brinda:

Issues of Privatisation Threatening Public Health

In the course of a labour struggle in Baba Ramdev’s Divyajyoti Pharmacy, Brinda Karat announced that human and animal bones were being used in the medicines produced in Ramdev’s factory. This dramatic revelation of the skeletons (literally) in Baba’s cupboard did not have the effect of embarrassing the Baba and showcasing the violations of labour laws and consumer-rights regulations in his factory. Rather, the Sangh Parivar as well as ‘secular’ figures like Laloo and Mulayam entered the fray, and the issue was posed as a classical battle between the ‘Irreligious Brinda’ and the ‘Indigenous Baba’, with the Baba being portrayed as a victim of an MNC conspiracy. Baba Ramdev himself reproduced the age-old Sangh rhetoric of Communists being anti-national enemies of Indian traditions and agents of ‘foreign’ corporates.
 In the shadowboxing between ‘MNCs vs Swadeshi’, and ‘Communists vs Tantriks’, genuine issues of public health in India seem to have been forgotten. We need to ask the Sangh, as well as Laloo and Mulayam – why did they not ban MNCs from profiteering from people’s sickness, when they had the power to do so? Why did they instead preside over the privatisation and commercialisation of the public health sector, turning health into a playground for private and multinational profiteers in states where they enjoyed power? No Government in India in the era of liberalisation has invested to strengthen public health – whether to promote research in Ayurveda or to expand people’s access to public hospitals. Instead, all have promoted the unbridled dismantling and commercialisation of the public health system.
The question we all need to ask is: can we allow our Governments to withdraw from health sector and leave people to the mercies of the MNCs on the one hand and the Babas on the other? Alternate medical practices like yoga, ayurveda, unani and so on have their relevance and role – but no honest practitioner of these traditions would claim that they can replace the institutions of public health. Mulayam Singh ought to be asked: if Baba Ramdev has the answers to all questions of health, why didn’t he rush in to save thousands of children in UP from a terrible death and even more terrible life of retardation due to encephalitis?
During the British Raj, the discourse of cultural nationalism asserted that the colonial control over all aspects of public national life mattered little – as long as Indians maintained their ‘spiritual’ superiority. Today, it suits those in power to promote a similar kind of cultural nationalism, which projects yoga, ayurveda etc… as India’s answer to globalisation and MNCs. In other words, people are encouraged to imagine: ‘So what if the poor can no longer afford AIIMS, so what if the Patent Amendment Act will allow MNCs to charge astronomical costs for medicine – we’ve got Baba Ramdev as the panacea of all ills!’
We have resisted the attempts of Governments to allow MNCs to use Indians as guinea pigs for dubious and dangerous contraceptives like Norplant. Can ‘faith’ be any excuse to exempt ayurveda or other indigenous practices from the same public scrutiny and accountability that we demand for allopathic drugs and practices? Be it an allopathic drug or an ayurvedic preparation – people have the right to know what its ingredients are, and that it has been tested and found safe for consumption.
The RSS and its forerunners were all too happy to talk of ‘spiritual superiority’ and ‘cultural nationalism’ while collaborating with British colonialism and betraying the freedom struggle. Today, their slogans of swadeshi cannot hide the fact that they have the worst track record of selling out national interests to MNCs. Recall that the only achievement of Vajpayee’s first 13-day tenure in power was to hastily sign a shameful deal with the notorious Enron! The ‘cultural nationalists’ of the Sangh would do well to remember that in contrast to their legacy of betrayal, it is only the Communists who have inherited the legacy of genuine anti-imperialist nationalism, and who continue to resist imperialist economic and political domination today. By playing poster boy for the anti-national forces of the Sangh, and indulging in sexist rhetoric against women leaders of the Left while his supporters led a shameful attack on the office of a Left party, the Baba has proven to be a political pawn rather than a pious seer.
It is also an unavoidable fact that the CPI(M)’s own soft-pedalling on the issues of both Hindutva and liberalization created a favourable pitch for the right-wing camp. In the first place, why did the CPI(M) not target the Congress Government in Uttaranchal for failing to implement labour laws and consumer rights laws in the Baba’s factory? Instead, CPI(M) chose to play to the liberal middle class Hindu sentiment by targeting the Baba for ‘hoodwinking vegetarians’ by using human and animal bones in his medicines! This plank backfired badly, and the Baba and his supporters proved to be far more adept at manipulating liberal Hindu sentiment. In fact, the dangers of playing with the ‘fire ‘ of liberal Hindu sentiment were most apparent in the fact that CPI(M)’s own Bengal leader Subhash Chakravarty ended up rushing to the defence of the Baba! In the face of the VHP offensive, the CPI(M) chose to beat a strategic retreat, reiterating that the issue was primarily one of workers’ rights in the Baba’s factory, and sidestepping the virulent attack by the Sangh Parivar on the nationalist credentials of Communists. In the whole debate, the CPI(M) has also chosen to avoid cornering the BJP, Laloo, and Mulayam on the question of privatisation of the health sector and MNC stranglehold over the drug industry. The irony is most apparent when one sees where the protagonists of the Baba vs Brinda battle stood in that very real battle between MNC Patents and the Indian people. The BJP-NDA pushed the Patent Amendment Act dictated by WTO in its own tenure; the UPA in its tenure, supported by the CPI(M), voted to pass it in Parliament!
To pose the issue as that of yoga/ayurveda vs allopathy is to create a smokescreen for the real issue at hand. National interest can only mean informed and universal accessibility of people to the best of medical care, both allopathic and indigenous. Any attempt to reduce nationalism to obscurantist rhetoric against the Left must be resisted tooth and nail.

-- Kavita Krishnan