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Patanjali faces contempt, told by SC not to issue medical ads

ByAbraham Thomas, New Delhi
Feb 28, 2024 05:44 AM IST

Senior advocate PS Patwalia, appearing for IMA along with advocate Prabhas Bajaj, pointed out that the company has shown scant regard to the court’s order

The Supreme Court on Tuesday restrained Patanjali Ayurved Ltd from issuing misleading advertisements on medical efficacy of its products and issued contempt notices to the company and its director Acharya Balakrishna for violating an earlier undertaking given in November.

A hoarding with an image of Baba Ramdev is seen inside a Patanjali store in Ahmedabad. (REUTERS/ FILE)
A hoarding with an image of Baba Ramdev is seen inside a Patanjali store in Ahmedabad. (REUTERS/ FILE)

A bench of justices Hima Kohli and Ahsanuddin Amanullah passed the order after being shown material by the Indian Medical Association (IMA), which first approached it in 2022, seeking action against Patanjali for disparaging modern medicine and making misleading claims about curing diseases, contrary to law.

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“You are a person who can do anything. That’s what we get from looking at these advertisements. The fact remains that you are selling your product to people as a ‘permanent relief’. This itself is misleading and a violation of the law,” the bench remarked.

The court also pulled up the Union government for its failure to rein in such advertisements. “The entire country is being taken for a ride. You must set it right. You were in the knowledge of these advertisements. The words of these advertisements are totally in violation of law. This petition was filed in 2022. For two years you did nothing,” the bench said.

IMA filed latest advertisements issued in December 2023 and January 2024, along with a video clip of a press conference held by yoga guru Ramdev, a day after the court on November 21 recorded Patanjali’s undertaking that it would not to violate law by issuing any misleading advertisement.

In addition, the court received an anonymous complaint of January 15 attaching two press clippings of advertisements issued on January 7, where Patanjali claimed that its products are “more effective than chemical-based synthetic medicines of allopathy”. Modern medicine is often referred to as allopathy in India.

The judges rebuked Patanjali for taking the court lightly. “Your statement was not worth the paper (it was on). This court had bound you to the statement you had made.”

Issuing contempt notices to Patanjali and its director Balakrishna, the bench said, “The said advertisements/press conference was issued after our order was passed on November 21, 2023. Prima facie this Court is of the view that respondent (Patanjali) is in violation of the undertaking given to this Court on November 21, 2023.”

The court directed Balakrishna to be made a party to the IMA petition and sought response in three weeks on “as to why contempt proceedings should not be initiated” against him and the company.

“The respondent (Patanjali) is restrained from advertising products manufactured and marketed by it which are meant to address ailments specified as diseases/disorders in the Drugs and Magic Remedies (Objectional Advertisements) Act, 1954,” the court further directed.

Section 3 of this law prohibits any advertisement claiming diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment or prevention of any lifestyle diseases such as blood pressure, diabetes, arthritis, asthma, cervical spondylitis, obesity and heart diseases. Further, Patanjali’s claim to eradicate asthma was in direct contravention to the Drugs & Cosmetics Rules 1945, IMA’s petition said.

Posting the matter on March 19, the bench held, “The officers of respondent (Patanjali) are cautioned from making any statement, adverse to any system of medicine in the media, both print and electronic, in any form as undertaken by them.”

Going through the advertisements, the bench noticed the photographs of Ramdev and Balakrishna. “If we take a view, the persons who are in this advertisement should be made parties. Let them file affidavits how they have made such statements in violation of our order,” it said.

When the court wished to know Ramdev’s position in Patanjali Ayurved, senior advocate Vipin Sanghi appearing for the company said, “He is a sanyasi (monk). He does not hold any position in the company and is only a yoga guru.”

Sanghi initially expressed surprise on being shown the advertisements and sought time to respond. To be sure, Ramdev has always publicly been associated with Patanjali and consistently targeted modern medicine.

On November 21, the court recorded the statement of senior advocate Sajan Poovayya appearing for Patanjali. Upon instructions from the company, he gave an undertaking that “henceforth, there shall not be any violation of any laws, especially relating to advertising or branding of products manufactured and marketed by it and, further, that no casual statements claiming medicinal efficacy or against any system of medicine will be released to the media in any form.”

The court bound Patanjali to this assurance and warned that if the company continued to act against law, it would not hesitate from imposing a cost of 1 crore on each of its products.

Senior advocate PS Patwalia, appearing for IMA along with advocate Prabhas Bajaj, pointed out that the company has shown scant regard to the court’s order. IMA also questioned the silence of the Centre in refusing to take any action.

“You have the courage and the guts to come out with this advertisement. You are tempting the court. We have to now target this entity and take action against the two persons in this advertisement,” the bench told Sanghi.

The court saw an affidavit filed by the Ayush ministry on February 5, which failed to show any action taken against Patanjali.

On the earlier date of hearing, the Centre sought time to have “full and effective consultation” with the concerned authorities on two aspects – incorrect assertions or misrepresentation for various products as regards medicinal efficacy of Patanjali products, and the measures which may be put in place for statements released through the media, both electronic and print, by the company.

Additional solicitor general KM Nataraj, appearing for Centre, told the court , “Misleading advertisements cannot be tolerated, irrespective of whether this person is doing it or that person.” Any violation under the 1954 Act amounts to an offence, but action must be taken by the state governments, he added, as he chose to withdraw the earlier affidavit to file a better one.

Granting the permission, the court told the law officer, “You should not wait for a complaint to be filed. This is something which you cannot ignore. It is unfortunate. We generally do not step in such issues.” The bench indicated that if it was beyond the Centre’s power to prohibit the advertisements, it would be open to adding states as parties to the proceedings.

Patanjali’s lawyer objected to the court restraining the company from issuing any advertisement. “I am entitled to advertise my products. A complete ban on my advertising is not fair,” Sanghi said.

“Common, gullible people are involved. Prima facie it appears you have flouted our orders. We are not satisfied with the way you have proceeded with the case and are going about it. This must stop immediately,” the court retorted.

Sanghi informed the court that Patanjali has contributed 40 crore for research and the company should be allowed to carry on with its business. “We know that you have surplus money. Let the affidavits come. Your flouting of our orders is not being taken lightly,” the court said.

Controversy is not new to Patanjali products. In June 2020, Ramdev held a press conference announcing that Patanjali had developed a cure for Covid-19. Later, the Centre issued a notice asking the company not to make such false claims.

At another public event in May 2021, during the peak of the second wave of the pandemic, Ramdev called modern medicine a “stupid and bankrupt science” and falsely claimed that more than 1,000 doctors died after taking both doses of the vaccine.

IMA has also registered criminal cases against Ramdev and Patanjali over their false claims in several states. and a defamation law suit filed by IMA against Ramdev is pending before the Delhi high court.

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