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Basant Kumar

From Ramkishan Yadav to Swami Ramdev, through enterprise and ‘nepotism’

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Perched amid the Aravallis, Saidalipur village in Haryana’s Mahendragarh has a school at its entrance, with a granite signage celebrating the hamlet’s “great personalities". Topping the list is Patanjali founder and yoga guru Ramdev.

The school, after all, is where Ramdev once enrolled as Ramkishan Yadav, and which he would abandon a few years later for an ashram that set him on the path to creating a conglomerate with a turnover of over Rs 10,000 crore.

But beyond such ornamental eulogies exist suspicion and tales of alleged nepotism, ill-treatment and exploitation by Saidalipur’s most prominent family.

“Whatever he may have done for the country, he has done nothing for the people here. His family members have tried to grab land belonging to the village panchayat. They have taken over a government pond and don’t let anyone take even soil from there,” alleged Deepak Singh, 24, who knows Ramdev’s family.

An elderly villager said most educated people in Saidalipur, which has a population of around 3,000, are unemployed “but no one wants to go to Patanjali”. “Nobody considers them as one of their own. Ramdev and his family have it so bad that if they contest the election for sarpanch, nobody but their family would vote for them.”

Singh claimed that the villagers had given five bighas of land to Ramdev’s family to manage a pond to harvest rainwater but they “gained nothing” as the water was allegedly never collected. He alleged that Ramdev was now miffed with the villagers for turning down his demand for 24 killas of land for a university and has “never looked at this village since then”.

Such tales of alleged exploitation by Ramdev and his family are abundant in Saidalipur, where the future guru was born and spent much of his childhood as the youngest of four siblings in a family of farmers.

Several villagers said Ramdev took many of them to work at Patanjali but they were either sacked or blamed for underperformance or theft. And as they toiled at the company, they alleged, their kin back home were told to work for Ramdev’s family in the village.

Surendra Vaidh was accused of theft, beaten up and fired as a supervisor at a Patanjali manufacturing unit when he told his mother not to work for Ramdev’s mother and sister-in-law, the villagers alleged. Vaidh himself refused to speak with Newslaundry.

Ramdev’s older brother Devdutt, who retired from the paramilitary and now farms for a living, denied all these accusations. “All of them are lazy. They work less and then they steal,” he said of the villagers. “How would anyone give them work? As for the pond, it was made by my grandfather. The villagers have no right to it.”

The school in Ramdev's village.
Ramdev tops the list of the villages's 'great personalities'.
Deepak Singh.

Leaving home

In Ramdev’s childhood, the Arya Samaj, a Hindu proselytising movement, held considerable sway in the region. Ramdev’s uncle Jagdish was an Arya Samaj preacher and he imparted the initial teachings of the movement to the “hard-working student” with a “penchant to serve others”.

“Around 1986, swami ji started telling me he often saw a seer in his dreams who asked him to serve the country,” Devdutt said of his brother. “He always took a jute mat and a glass of water to the roof to meditate. He continued this practice and one day left home.”

In 1987, having dumped his school books in the forest, Ramdev arrived at Arsh gurukul, a bustling Arya Samaj study center in nearby Khanpur. The gurukul, where hundreds of curious disciples once resided and learned the teachings of the movement, is now under Patanjali’s patronage and houses a large Patanjali godown-store.

Ramdev’s father soon arrived in Khanpur to take him home as his mother grieved over his decision to leave, recalled Swami Pradyuman, who taught him at the gurukul and is now back at the institute after a stint at Patanjali. “We told him we couldn’t keep someone forcefully. But Ramdev came back the next day and never returned home. He was hardworking, faithful, good at studies, and he had a penchant for serving others. No matter the task, he wouldn’t rest until it was finished. He is still like that.”

Ramdev spent two years at the gurukul, before leaving for Kalwa ashram in Jhajjar and eventually settling in Haridwar in Uttarakhand. But the gurukul was where he met his future lieutenant Balkrishna, who “arrived a couple of months after Ramdev”, according to Swami Pradyuman. “I was the one who brought him to the gurukul. His father had come from Nepal as a labourer. He is younger than Ramdev but both of them became good friends. When Ramdev left, Balkrishna did too, soon after.”

In 1993, Ramdev underwent sanyaas diksha, the initiation ceremony for Hindu ascetics, at Haridwar’s Kankhal temple, and along with Balkrishna, became a disciple of Shankar Dev of Kripalu Bagh Ashram.

It was in this sacred city that the seeds of the Patanjali conglomerate would be sown.

Shankar Dev's Kripalu Bagh Ashram.

Rising clout

There is a popular belief that Patanjali has always rested on the shoulders of Ramdev and Balkrishna, but there are also people like Swami Karmveer who played a key role, at least in the beginning.

Karmveer, a disciple of Shankar Dev like Ramdev and Balkrishna, went about conducting yoga camps and dishing out herbal cures wherever he could. He claimed that Ramdev was introduced to plant-based remedies by him and others during this period.

Ramdev eventually decided to open his first nursery aimed at producing medicinal herbs and sought money from his family, according to Devdutt. “Our father took a loan from the bank and gave him some money.”

And in January 1995, these four people formed a trust called the Divya Yog Mandir, with vast patches of land owned by Dev along the Ganga brought under the new legal entity – a sister concern of the firms now collectively known as Patanjali.

If a report by Tehelka magazine is to be believed, Dev was the protector of this trust while Ramdev was appointed president, Karmveer vice president, and Balkrishna general secretary. Sadhvi Kamla was made deputy secretary and Jeevraj Bhai Patel, a Surat businessman, the treasurer. In time, more trustees were added to this legal entity.

As this trust tried to produce medical remedies on scale, it was Ramdev who brought in the necessary financial resources and eventually came to enjoy greater control of the legal entity along with Balkrishna.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a person privy to Patanjali’s affairs since its initial years claimed it was Patel who provided the pharmaceutical manufacturing equipment to Ramdev and helped him meet philanthropists in Gujarat. “Patel had come to Haridwar for work, had a stomach ache, and found relief through Ramdev’s medicine.”

Around then, Ramdev’s popularity as a yoga teacher also grew and he was soon bringing in nearly a crore rupees every week from yoga camps, which were attended by lakhs of people. These years also marked an exponential surge in the popularity of his medicines.

According to the Tehelka report, nine months after the formation of the trust, Balkrishna removed Vijay Chaitanya and a businessman from it, claiming they were involved in “unwelcome activities”. In 1997 Sadhvi Kamla was thrown out over allegedly illegal activities. Karmveer went his separate way in 2004, over what he described as a difference in thinking, and floated the Maharshi Patanjali International Yog Vidyapeeth in Uttar Pradesh’s Muzaffarnagar to teach yoga and make ayurvedic products.

Ramdev and Balkrishna, meanwhile, had Dev assent in writing that the property of the trust “would be transferred to another trust with similar objectives” if the trust was dissolved, according to the report.

Karmveer's Maharshi Patanjali International Yog Vidyapeeth.

‘Left spirituality behind’

One of Karmveer’s disciples said Ramdev’s growing business ambitions meant that “he was ready to do anything for business by sidestepping spirituality”. “Ramdev’s affinity with politicians was growing and that wasn’t to Karmveer’s liking and he left one evening,” the disciple told Newslaundry.

According to an official in Uttarakhand’s Ayush department, the Patanjali founder approached Mulayam Singh Yadav and Lalu Prasad Yadav, former chief ministers, respectively, of UP and Bihar, and “used his caste to ask for help” to promote his brand. “Mulayam Singh introduced him to Sahara Shri and Lalu also made a statement in his support there,” the official said, referring to Sahara group chairman Subrata Roy, who was close to the Samajwadi Party leader. “Now when Ramdev is close to the BJP, Mulayam and Lalu don’t miss an opportunity to level allegations against him. He has used people when needed and moved on.”

Karmveer maintained that he was among the founders of Patanjali. “There were some things that I didn’t agree with but I don’t think it is appropriate for me to spell them out,” he told Newslaundry. “I didn’t take anything from them when I left. Crores of rupees were pouring in but I separated because our thinking wasn’t aligned.”

On the evening he left Ramdev, Karmveer went to one of his teachers at Gurukul Kangri, Ishwar Bharadwaj. “He didn’t mention the reasons for leaving Patanjali at the time,” Bharadwaj recalled. “He only said he was going to the seashore for tapasya. Ramdev was saddened by Karmveer’s departure. I spoke to him and he said, ‘We are ready to give everything to Karmveer, only if he returns.’”

Several years later, in 2007, Shankar Dev disappeared, and a section of sants in Haridwar blamed Ramdev. The police closed the case the same year it was lodged.

Ramdev’s brother Devdutt.

Accusations against Ramdev

Dev lived in a room, which is now locked, in a red-painted building on the premises of the Kripalu Bagh Ashram, now known as Divya Yogpeeth, by the Ganga in Kankhal. Two guards at the gate, with a large photograph of Ramdev and a smaller one of Balkrishna placed in their room, claimed it was the same spot where Balkrishna used to sit to distribute medicines.

The reasons behind Dev’s disappearance vary, depending on who one talks to.

“Shankar Dev ji was a simple man. These people took everything from him through cunning ways. He was ill, but he wasn’t getting any treatment. He frequently used to tell us all this. He was sick of his disciples and one day disappeared. He suffered in his final days,” said a mahant at an ashram in Kankhal.

“I was far away from Haridwar in those days though I often called him to inquire about his health. One day he called me and said we wouldn’t have another conversation. I asked him to come to me for treatment. I told him he would get better. He didn’t say anything and the next day came the news of his disappearance,” said Karmveer.

Ishwar Bhardwaj, however, claimed Dev carried “unbearable” back pain from a childhood injury and might have jumped into the stream near the ashram. “Once I went to Divya Yog Peeth in winter. I was with Balkrishna. The guard at the door wasn’t wearing a sweater. Dev ji saw that and asked Balkrishna to give him a sweater. Balkrishna immediately ordered one sweater to be brought for the guard,” he said. “Would Balkrishna make someone on whose order he acted without delay suffer? This isn’t plausible.”

However, the Kankhal mahant said all three of Dev’s disciples were quite well known and the business was worth crores but Dev never went outside the ashram for treatment.

Politics and controversies

Karmveer remained distant for a few years until Ramdev reached out for help.

Starting a campaign against black money stashed abroad in 2012, Ramdev took on the Congress which was in power in Uttarakhand. The Congress retaliated by filing 81 cases against the yoga guru, for alleged tax evasion, land grab and corruption, and sent the police to raid several of his centres.

“People from the Congress wanted me to say something which could lead to the arrest of Swami Ramdev. I said no such thing. When Ramdev found out that people from the Congress were getting in touch with me, he called me to an event in Noida. I went there due to his insistence. We met after so many years. He gave me respect. I knew why this reverence was being shown. I cannot lie,” said Karmveer.

It seemed that Ramdev knew how to escape controversy as much as he couldn’t help avoid it.

In 2006, CPM leader Brinda Karat accused Ramdev of mixing human and animal bones in his medicines. Patanjali denied the allegations, even as the controversy raged on in the media, but nearly a decade later, army canteens withdrew Patanjali amla juice after it failed quality tests at a public health laboratory in West Bengal.

In 2018, Karmveer raised questions about the quality of Patanjali ghee. “I still stand by what I said,” he told Newslaundry. “If anyone manufactures pure desi ghee from a desi cow, it’d cost around Rs 1,200.” Patanjali ghee today sells for around Rs 600 a kilo.

In spite of such accusations, Patanjali has continued to thrive, seemingly even more as ayurveda has seen a resurgence in recent years under BJP’s Hindu nationalist ecosystem.

In the middle of the Covid pandemic last year, two union ministers sat next to Ramdev and Balkrishna to launch Coronil, which Patanjali declared was the “first evidence-based medicine for coronavirus”. Coronil remains mired in controversy with an ongoing trial in the Delhi high court after resistance to such claims by various medical associations.

Ironically, the BJP was accused of favouring a man who had previously hit out at other political parties for dynasticism while hailing the saffron party as a political group offering change, but who stands accused of fostering nepotism in Patanjali.

The company and the family

“I’m a fakeer. I work for the country and I’m attempting to strengthen the country. The benefits of Patanjali are for the country. Today, Patanjali has become a Rs 8,000 crore company. We are acquiring other companies, and moving ahead,” Ramdev said in 2019.

However, his detractors allege the benefits of Patanjali are only for those close to Ramdev.

Ramdev’s brother Rambharat, who has worked for Patanjali from the start, is now a director at 20 firms linked to the empire. In 17 Patanjali firms that have Balkrishna as a director, Ramdev and Rambharat are also present along with their relatives. In fact, Rambharat and his wife Snehlata have replaced Balkrishna and other Ramdev associates as directors in at least two enterprises.

But very few people have met Rambharat, who spends most of his time in a Patanjali food park at Padartha village in Haridwar. He was accused of murder and arrested after a truck driver Daljeet Singh died in a clash in 2015 between Patanjali workers and protesters from a local truck union seeking work at the food park. The trial is ongoing at a district court. A lawyer told Newslaundry that a judgement is likely by March next year.

Those familiar with the Patanjali empire in Haridwar said Rambharat, along with his brother-in-law Yashdev Shastri, essentially ran the show.

In 2009, Patanjali launched its clothing business through Patanjali Paridhan Pvt Ltd, and Rambharat and Balkrishna were appointed as directors. Balkrishna resigned in 2018 and Rambharat’s wife Snehlata took over as director.

When Patanjali took over Ruchi Soya, Balkrishna was made the managing director, but he resigned in August 2020 and was replaced by Rambharat.

The guards at Patanjali compounds are from a Patanjali subsidiary, Parakram Security India Private Limited, which has Rambharat and Yashdev Shastri as directors. Shastri, who supplies oil to Patanjali through a manufacturing business, is a director in three firms linked to Ramdev’s conglomerate.

“True power is in Rambharat’s hands,” said a Dehradun-based journalist working for a national TV news channel. “Balkrishna is slowly being removed from all the decision-making posts.”

Newslaundry made repeated attempts to contact Ramdev's public relations office SK Tijarawala for comment, but the calls went unanswered. We also emailed him asking about the allegations against the yoga guru, his family members and business empire. This report will be updated if he responds.

The second part of this series looks into allegations of land grab against Patanjali.

A version of this report was originally published on Newslaundry Hindi. Translated from Hindi by Shardool Katyayan.

This NL Sena project is still to be topped up. Contribute to the fund and pay to keep news free. Contribute now.

Newslaundry is a reader-supported, ad-free, independent news outlet based out of New Delhi. Support their journalism, here.

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