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‘Apology not accepted’: SC raps Patanjali, Uttarakhand Govt over misleading ads

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STATE TIMES NEWS

NEW DELHI: The Supreme Court lambasted yoga guru Ramdev and Patanjali Ayurved managing director Acharya Balkrishna, refusing to accept their unconditional apology for issuing misleading advertisements and saying the judges didn’t want to be “so generous” after the two were caught on the wrong foot with their “back to the wall”.
A bench of justices Hima Kohli and Ahsanuddin Amanullah also came down heavily on the Uttarakhand government, saying the authorities kept their “eyes shut” by not cracking down on the company for violating advertising rules by making false claims about curing diseases such as diabetes and asthma.
“We decline to accept your affidavit (of apology)or condone your conduct. We consider it wilful breach of our order (of November 21, 2023). We decline to accept this affidavit. This is deliberate violation of law for which you will have to suffer consequences,” the bench told Ramdev and Balkrishna. The court pointed out that the affidavit of unconditional apology was released to the media before being filed in court, and suggested that this implied it wasn’t genuine.
The court pulled up Uttarakhand officials for acting “in cahoots” with the contemnors and failing to register cases against Patanjali for issuing advertisements promising cures for lifestyle and other specified ailments prohibited under the Drugs and Magic Remedies (Objectionable Advertisements) Act 1954, Drugs and Magic Remedies (Objectionable Advertisements) Rules 1955, and Drugs and Cosmetics Rules 1945. The court directed the state licensing officers and district ayurvedic officers posted in the state since 2018 (since when complaints against Patanjali are pending) to explain their inaction within two weeks.
“We will rip you apart… Why should we not think that you were in cahoots with the contemnor respondents and you were keeping your eyes shut deliberately?” the bench asked.
The court, which fixed April 16 as the next date of hearing, directed Ramdev and Balkrishna to remain present for the third time, reminding the two that they were taking things “too lightly” when there was a “wilful and deliberate breach of law” in a contempt case, for which consequences will follow.
On April 2, the court had refused to accept the affidavit filed by Ramdev and Balkrisna, giving them an opportunity to file a fresh affidavit. The bench indicated that it might initiate perjury proceedings after noting a wrong fact in an application that sought exemption from personal appearance for the two men.
In that document sworn on March 30, they attached a copy of the travel ticket of March 31, which infuriated the bench. “The fact remains that when the affidavit was sworn, no such ticket was there and an attempt was made to wriggle out of the proceedings before court,” the bench remarked
“The apologies that are on record are on paper. Since you have been caught on the wrong foot and their back is already against the wall, having gone to town saying all kinds of things the very next day of our order passed (on November 21) where your counsel had given undertaking… we are wondering why should we not treat your affidavit with the same disdain that you showed to your undertaking. We won’t accept your affidavit,” the court said.
“Patanjali, Baba Ramdev did not find it fit to send us the fresh apology affidavits. Till matter hit the news, this court did not have the benefit of getting the affidavits. They sent it to media first. They clearly wanted to publicise it by putting it into public domain. Till 7.30pm yesterday it was not uploaded for us,” the court added.
In the November 21, 2023 order, the top court had noted that the counsel representing Patanjali Ayurved had assured it that “henceforth there shall not be any violation of any law(s), 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 top court had said Patanjali Ayurved is “bound down to such assurance”. But it was flouted by the company, which also released statements to the media, which irked the court.
Senior advocates Mukul Rohatgi and Balbir Singh, representing the two contemnors and the company, urged the court to consider the affidavit where the two even agreed to refrain from making any public statement or issue advertisement contrary to their undertaking. They also offered to issue a public apology in the media and press.
But the bench was unmoved. “You do whatever, but we will pass orders,” it said.
Solicitor general Tushar Mehta, appearing for the Centre, told the court that the fresh affidavits were filed on his advice, and if there was anything that the court felt must be done, it could be communicated to the lawyers.
The bench said, “It is not about the contemnors alone but a larger message should go out to the public at large that an undertaking given to the court, which is to be valued and accepted, and you are violating the law with blatant impunity.”
They observed that an apology given to the court could not be taken lightly as there was a larger issue concerning public health. “We are also concerned about the FMCGs (fast moving consumer goods) who are taking the consumers up the garden path and making people buy their products who end up bearing adverse consequences. There are major fault lines in the system and this fault line is not at the cost of your company but the health of the public.”
Uttarakhand filed a separate affidavit explaining the action taken on the complaints against Patanjali for misleading advertisements. Senior advocate Dhruv Mehta, appearing for the state, said that in three instances during 2022, notices were issued to Divya Pharmacy (under Patanjali Ayurved Limited) over their medicines promising cure for diabetes, asthma and other lifestyle diseases.
Dhruv Mehta referred to the affidavit filed by licensing department’s joint director Mithilesh Kumar who quoted the response received from Divya Pharmacy citing an order of the Bombay high court staying the 1945 Drugs and Cosmetics Rules. On this basis, a warning was issued to the company.
But the court dismissed this explanation. “Why should we not think that you are in cahoots with the alleged contemnors? You kept your eyes shut deliberately. When they violated your warning, what did you do, sit and wiggle your thumb. On what basis did you offer them warning? You warned but did not take any action for two years. Should this be the attitude of the state authority? You are hand-in-glove as three times you issue notice but no action taken.”
The court noted that the officer who filed the Uttarakhand affidavit was in office only for nine months.
As the officer, Mithilesh Kumar, sought to apologise, the bench remarked, “What is at stake are the countless faceless people who buy these medicines. What about people who had Coronil (a drug floated by Patanjali as cure for Covid later withdrawn after Centre intervened) in good faith. Can a warning be enough if people die?”
Noting the manner in which the files against Patanjali kept moving between the ministry of Ayush in the central government, the Uttarakhand licensing authority, and the district ayurvedic officer, the bench said, “We are appalled to note except for pushing the file, the state licensing authority has done nothing. They sit pretty and wait for instructions from above when they can act under the law…. There was a clear attempt on part of state authority to pass the buck and delay the matter. In all these five years, the licensing authority has remained in deep slumber…You have given them a long rope by acting as a mere post office.”
The order said, “We are of the opinion that all predecessors of the joint director, licensing department are equally complicit during their tenure in office… The predecessor to the present deponent (Mithilesh Kumar) shall file affidavit explaining his inaction on his part during his tenure in office. All district ayurvedic and Unani officials from 2018 till date will also file affidavit explaining inaction on their part.”
They were granted two weeks to file response.
The orders came on a petition filed by Indian Medical Association (IMA) and former IMA secretary-general Jayesh Lele, who approached the top court in 2022 against derogatory remarks made by Ramdev against allopathic doctors and modern medicine and promoting Patanjali drugs to have cure for lifestyle diseases, prohibited under the 1954 Act.
On February 27, IMA referred to certain advertisements issued by Patanjali in violation of their undertaking and a press conference held by Ramdev a day after the undertaking given by the company on November 21 last year.

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