The Strange Case of Baba Ramdev
A young Yadav lad, the son of a low-income Haryana farmer, grows up in the decade of the seventies, the low-point of Nehruvian socialism. He is put through middle school with considerable financial strain on his family. The young boy goes through impressionable years of his life learning of an India of historical greatness, the dreams and aspirations that history textbooks routinely weave in telling a heroic narrative of the nation’s struggle to come into its own. A picture of Ram Prasad ‘Bismil’ and Subhas Chandra Bose allegedly hang in his room. Perhaps he is taken out of the government school that he attends and sent to a gurukul-type private school for a better education. As an adolescent, this boy continues to be influenced by the kind of ascetic masculinity that had spurred early twentieth-century nation building and anti-colonialism—his heroes from the canon of the freedom movement are militant nationalists such as Ram Prasad ‘Bismil’ and Subhas Chandra Bose, as well as hardliners such as Sardar Patel—not a usual fare of Gandhi-Nehru dominated freedom struggle.
Thirty years hence, a vernacular godman grips the attention of the world, claiming almost-miraculous powers to yoga and Ayurveda. Breath practices and disciplined living, we are told, can sure diseases such as AIDS; allopathic medicine, we are told, is a charade and must be replaced by Ayurveda; yoga is the answer to all problems. This Swami wows recent spate of Indian diaspora in the first world with his ability to contort his body and subject it to seemingly impossible tortures. The nation, on the other hand, already knows him as a familiar figure, waking up with his call to yoga on Aastha channel every morning. The Swami emerges, already famous, having seemingly bypassed the usual route of a gradual rise to popularity. His online hagiographies already show elements of obfuscation. Lack of particulars notwithstanding, we get a picture of a Swami who has not merely risen as a traditional godman pandering to the elites, but a veritable saffron-clad warrior for vernacular democracy who has done an excellent task of guaranteeing himself a core support group amongst lower income, middle classes of the Hindi belt—precisely the same background that he emerged from; a tour de force that differentiates him from other godmen, as we shall see.
Today, this low-income boy who turned into a godman heads an empire of traditional healing practices, that include an Ayurveda university, a traditional healing retreat cum medicine facility, and a yoga retreat (all three near Haridwar); yoga workshops run by trained yoga instructors in various small and large towns of north India; an enormously popular brand ‘Divya Mandir’ of herbal products; a vast internet presence through websites, facebook pages, blogs, and youtube videos; and a sizable and growing support group for his programs both within and outside India. His current worth is estimated at over 1000 crores, and he has successful organizations and centers in various parts of the world especially targeting the Indian diaspora. The Swami’s meteoric rise in popularity and his heady mix of faith-based practices with a program of rejuvenating the nation beg the question as to how is he different from others of his ilk. Purveyors of a new and global Hinduism such as Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, Swami Nityananda, Sathya Sai Baba, Ma Amritanandamayi and so on have also amassed a significant following of celebrities and the general public in recent years. Different he is, and it may be of vital importance for us parse out his ultra-nationalist vision, so as not to confuse him with any other godman or woman who largely seem satisfied with doling out Hindu ecumenism for consumption in the global marketplace of spiritualism.
The key to Ramdev’s success lies in his projection of himself as a rejuvenator of the Indian nation. He is at the helm of a movement (a self-proclaimed andolan, no less) that has turned him from a savvy businessman and traditional healer into the most contemporary face of neo-Swadeshi and neo-Hindutva nationalism in India. Liberal and left-leaning intellectuals and journalists have condemned him for holding the country hostage to an improbable, laughable and socially conservative agenda, drawing attention to fascistic tendencies underlying his programs. Much of the critique, however, reverts to portraying him as a traditional godman and a charlatan, out to con the intellectually-challenged lower middle class Indian populace who have readily abandoned rational thought to pledge support to this mystic.
However, we can no longer ignore a sustained analysis of this contemporary face of Swadeshi socialism and Hindutva culturalism that emerges through the Baba phenomenon. The Baba has been able to cleverly revive and older RSS program based on national pride, majoritarian social justice, and punitively hardline agenda combining it with a savvy use of a keen business-sense, new media practices, and located as its enemy a well-honed notion of corruption, both moral and financial. He has also been able to tap into older RSS networks, which the BJP had alienated in its projection of a ‘Shining’ India, and from where he derives the core of his popular support. As the face of India’s neo-Hindutva movement, the Baba phenomenon is significant enough to merit a sustained analysis of the discursive and operational networks. What is even more remarkable is that these networks have arisen in less than a decade. The Baba may not be a mere passing fad or a momentary fancy, but a new player on the India’s Hindu rightwing spectrum, so any ignorance about his organizational network and capacities will be at our own peril.
Structure of a ‘Revolution’: Unpacking Corporate Neo-Swadeshi
Underlying Baba Ramdev’s anti-graft movement is a program of Swadeshi economic reform. It is worth considering his network of organizations to see the kind of Swadeshi that is being imagined there. Baba Ramdev’s umbrella organization is called the Divya Yog Mandir, or the Patanjali Yog Peeth, and it is headquartered in Haridwar. The Yog Peeth claims a hoary origin, as an extension of the Kripalu Bagh Ashram established in 1932 by Acharya Kripalu Dev and Swami Shraddhananda of the Arya Samaj in Hardwar. In 1995, the Divya Yog Mandir, also known as the Patanjali Yog Peeth (hereafter, PYP), was established, and in 2006, a star-studded inauguration of the current building of the Yog Peeth was done by the then Vice-President of India, Bhairon Singh Shekhawat. A documentary on PYP found on its website notes that Chief Ministers of 17 states attended the ceremony including N. D. Tiwari, Sheila Dixit, Lalu Prasad Yadav, and Nitish Kumar. Run as a combination of yoga retreat, traditional healing research center, nationalist camp, and spiritual vacation, the PYP offers medicinal, religious, and recreational services. The Yog Peeth sponsors a range of activities that are aimed at a wide cross-section of Indian population, both at home and in the diaspora. Within India, the network of institutions supported by the PYP consists of “Campuses” and “Undertakings and Departments”. Three main campuses are listed on the website. Although this list is by no means exhaustive and does not mention the physical and virtual ‘campuses’ outside of Haridwar, it is nonetheless informative of the range of core activities carried out by PYP:
1. Patanjali Yog Peeth II: This is a campus on 35 acres of land, where “Yoga Science residential camps” are held with the Baba.
2. Yog Gram: “An eco-friendly place equipped with modern amenities amidst breathtaking beauty of Nature,” according to PYP website description. However, the website of Yog Gram shows it to be a medical center imparting traditional healing. Those suffering from medical ailments are given preference in admittance, although visitors are allowed to visit and stay. Rates of residence vary from Rs. 1,000 per day to Rs. 3,000 per day, with a minimum stay of 7 days and a maximum stay of 50 days allowed.
3. Patanjali Herbal Garden and Agro Research Department: A greenhouse where medicinal herbs are kept and preserved for research.
Apart from Campuses that serve the purpose of elite getaways combined with traditional forms of healing, the PYP also sponsors wide-reaching programs that are aimed for the public at large. Categorized as “Undertakings and Departments,” these consist of the following activities:
1. Conducting yoga camps, residential and non-residential, across the globe.
2. Making use of television to popularize yoga on an everyday basis.
3. Establishing “Patanjali Yog Samitis” at state, district, tehsil, and village levels.
4. Establishing an accredited University for teaching and research in Ayurveda.
The PYP runs branch institutes and yoga centers both within and outside India. One such branch was opened in Nepal last year with full support of the Nepali government. Another has recently opened in Wee Cumbria, a Scottish island worth 3.3 million pounds, donated by Mrs. Sunita Poddar—Ramdev supporter and an activist of alternate medicine in the UK.
Even while Baba’s popular and public persona claims fundamental democratic transformations, it will be clear from examining his own organizations that he sits at the helm of a practically oligarchic structure based upon income and wealth. Membership of the Yog Peeth Trust (hereafter PYT), the Yog Peeth’s main policymaking body, is based upon monetary donations. Four kinds of members of the trust—Corporate, Founder, Patron, and Life—deliberate over policy matters. These members must pay, on a sliding scale, a minimum of 11 lakhs, 5 lakhs, 2 lakhs 50 thousand, and 1 lakh to gain membership. Apart from the above, PYT membership also contains Dignified members who pay 51,000, Respected members who pay 21,000; and General members who pay 11,000 rupees. These members can attend meetings but ordinarily have no say in policy decisions. Despite much online searching, I was unable to locate the names of the trustees of the YPT.
At the helm of Baba’s hydra-like corporate and ideological empire is a triad of trusts: The Yog Peeth Trust, the Bharat Swabhiman Trust, and the Yog Gram. All three are run out of the same office, suggesting an underlying administrative overlap between these three organizations. The Bharat Swabhiman Trust (hereafter BST) is the main ideological and perhaps even financial sponsor of the popular movement, the Bharat Swabhiman Andolan. The BST has a password protected website that I was unable to access. Membership criterion is the same as that for Patanjali Yog Peeth: beginning with 11 lakhs at the Corporate (highest) level, and 1 lakh at the level of the Life member. Thereafter, it changes: a Special member pays 1,100 rupees, and a worker member pays a mere 51. One could also, potentially, become a general member with no payment at all. Policy matters, however, are decided only by Corporate and Founder Members who are “invited on special occassions (sic) and important meetings including policy making meetings of institution from time to time.” General and worker members of the BST seem to operate as grassroots-level volunteers imparting training in yoga and nationalism. The BST itself provides them with special training in “yog-dharma” and “rashtra-dharma,” thereby preparing them for their role as grassroots workers and volunteers. Such training is imparted in weeklong camps and is offered as a special perk to those who decide to take general membership of the Trust. It is a paradoxical situation, indeed: the main purpose of the Trust, bodily discipline and nation building, are handed out as special privileges to its ordinary members.
Swadeshi Socialism and Glocal India: Postcolonial Uses of Anti-colonial Discourse
As an indication of its program for nation-building, the BSA website promises the following: creating a healthy and prosperous India; forging a disciplined (yog-may) India; making India self-dependent through Swadeshi; and (guaranteeing) 100% voter turnout. This kind of neo-nationalist discourse, very interestingly, builds upon a well-rehearsed anti-colonial nationalism from the twenties to the forties of the last century. This appropriation and repackaging of the discourse of nation building from within anti-colonialism should not be overlooked as it plays a key role in providing a familiar aesthetic content to this neo-conservative, 21st-century patriotism. Terms such as Swadeshi and Swabhiman Andolan hark back to self-sustainment and self-respect movements from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The terms are also reminiscent of the Independence Movement (called Swadhinata Andolan in Hindi history textbooks). Not unlike the former, this ‘andolan’ too is purportedly based upon Satyagraha, or Gandhian Civil Disobedience. To pledge support to the Swabhiman Andolan, you are asked to give a missed call to a mobile number. This is, in itself, a testimony to the fascinating use of new technology (cell phones) and popular practices (missed calls). Reportedly, 60 lakh calls had already been made to this number by June 5, 2011.
The Baba is not beyond performing an andolan, replete with injustices, police brutalities, attempted escapes in disguise, and (most importantly) a discourse of martyrdom. In this regard, the Indian government’s brutal crackdown on the fasting Baba and his supporters at Ramlila grounds has only served to buttress a narrative of comparing the postcolonial state to a colonial government. Not surprisingly, Bharat Swabhiman Andolan’s facebook update after police action reads, “the government today has repeated the Jalliawaala Bagh in a democratic country.” In almost hourly updates since then, videos of police action are uploaded, and the event constantly compared to the atrocities levied by colonial authorities on the hapless and struggling non-violent freedom fighters. The deployment of anti-colonial discourse against a postcolonial state is an important aspect of the Baba’s political maneuvering and marks a significant, though unnoticed, shift in ultra-nationalist discourse in India—from the outright communal language of Hindutva ideologues to a seemingly non-communal discourse preferred by the Baba.
The enemy in Baba’s invective can be mapped on grounds of corruption—moral, physical, and national. In this Swadeshi vision, a notional ‘West’ appears as the harbinger of these corruptions, whether it is black money stashed away in foreign banks, or practicing sex for pleasure, or even drinking aerated beverages such as Coca Cola. The Baba has strongly condemned each of these at one point or the other in recent times. The West is understood culturally, not geographically. It is a place of excesses and consumption—financial, sexual, and dietary. A patriotic Indian is, thus, a thoroughly indigenous individual, proud of their culture, and performatively non-western in thought and habit. It is not necessary that such an Indian occupy the geographical territory of the nation-state of India. The body politic of a Swabhiman Bharat is portrayed as a glocal concept, embracing the rustic Indian village as much as the non-cosmopolitan diasporic subject.
A form of Swadeshi socialism characterizes Baba Ramdev’s vision. His more bizarre demands ask for a replacement of “British-inherited system of governance, administration, taxation, education, law and order with a swadeshi alternative.” In addition and more interestingly, the Baba also wishes to see the abolishment of the Land Acquisitions Act and has demanded standard wages for laborers all over the country. In a remarkable manifesto titled Rashtradharm, available at http://www.rashtradharm.com/, the Baba’s neo-Swadeshi discourse emerges most clearly. The riches of the nation are listed in terms of its natural resources and the manpower that harnesses these resources. Greedy corporatism and corrupt politicians allow the former to be exploited at the cost of livelihoods of millions of latter. A discourse of exploitation is hereby vernacularized, made familiar to a Hindi speaking, lower middle class support base.
This increasing section of the Indian population has come to age by rote memorization of textbook narratives of the Indian freedom movement that held the promise of a new and egalitarian India. Baba’s agenda for change builds upon the disappointment of that textbook narrative and translates the disappointment into a vernacular idiom. As popular ultra-nationalisms go, this one too is a dangerous mix of Swadeshi socialism and saffron fascism. We see that this is not a liberal or market-driven economic agenda but one that is specifically aimed at enlarging the scope and responsibility of a culturally defined State. In the process, this non-liberally constituted nation-state is potentially given a vast array of powers and responsibilities.
Healing the Body Politic: Discipline, Corruption, and the Nation
In the Baba’s ideological expressions, we find some of the clearest articulations of the somatic idea of the nation whose health needs to be constantly monitored. Discourses about body, health, and the nation abound in this vision of a rejuvenated future. ‘India’ is understood as an aesthetic and ethical corpus that must be actively forged through ‘yog-dharm’ (discipline) and ‘rashtra-dharm’ (patriotism) of its citizens. This, in turn, is deemed capable of affecting a ‘Pranayam Revolution’ (Revolution of Breath Control)—a vernacular and bourgeois translation of the concept of Total Revolution and the transformative capacities therein. This is a revolution against corruption and westernization, and the restitution of middle-class values of work, family, culture, and sexuality. This is a socialism of the petit bourgeoisie—an economic agenda of rejuvenation by reclaiming mines, military, and black money as national resources combined with cultural agenda of rejuvenation by reviving Brahmanical social practices such as the varna and ashrama system.
Once forged, this body politic needs to be carefully guarded against diseases as varied as black money to homosexuality. The school, the university, the prison, the family, and the village hence emerge as key sites in this program of discipline. At the heart of the Pranayam Revolution lies a rigorously rational, biological, and non-salvific reworking of yoga and Ayurveda. These traditional practices of healing and spiritual exertion are thereby made available to an ultra-nationalist cause.
Unlike other twentieth century godpersons, this Baba rationalizes relentlessly. There is not a whisper of the mystical, the irrational, or the miraculous in his discourse, whether on the health of the human body or the national body. The claim is relentlessly one of science. Yoga and Ayurveda have a scientific basis, it is rigorously emphasized. Not unlike a Latourean constitution of the laboratory in early modern Europe, science in the context of the Pranayam Revolution emerges within a network of institutions and discourses—the Ayurveda University, the Patanjali Yog Peeth, centers of Ayurvedic healing in India and abroad, international forums of non-western healing, and a repackaged neo-Swadeshi for India. This insistence on science is combined with a robust negation of the mystical and the transcendental—arguably key concerns for any religious phenomenon.
In his insistence upon science and rationality at the service of the nation, Baba Ramdev represents a contemporary face of the Arya Samaj and similarities between him and Dayananda Saraswati are worth noting. Both are vernacular-speaking sadhus who emerge rather suddenly on the scene of contemporary public life and rose rapidly in popularity. Both rigorously insist scientific basis to certain kinds of Hindu traditions and practices. Both vigorously argue against catholicity within religions—ritual, miracles, ecclesiastical authority, and so on. There is one difference between the two, though, and this has to do with their conception of the ‘Other.’ Dayananda’s invective clearly targeted non-Hindus, particularly Muslims and Christians. His writings are replete with crass insults to Islam and Christianity. In Baba Ramdev’s nationalist invective, we see a somewhat different articulation of the enemy that must be vanquished. This enemy is now understood simply as Corruption.
While the current face of Corruption is the anti-graft movement, in the larger ideological framework of the Baba’s movement, corruption includes all kinds of afflictions to the body of the nation. The Baba’s critique of the current Indian state for compromising the Indian nation is far-reaching, and at times reminds one of the more radical leftist discourse on Independence as nothing more than a transfer of power from the British to the westernized Indian elites. Corruption is given an extremely wide definition. It is “not merely a social problem but a distilled form of a political problem.” Corruption, beyond graft, is understood as a variety of morally repugnant activities, including quotidian forms such as tardiness, avoiding hard work, accepting bribes, dowry, and so on. More extreme forms of corruption include a failure to provide adequate security to the citizens of India and dealings in black money. The political system is held responsible for latter forms of corruption, while the society at large is held responsible for the earlier forms of corruption. The cure, as the manifesto states, is “character building…Therefore, parents should impart high values to their children from a tender age, and spiritual and cultural values must be assimilated in the education system to cause a visible overhaul of its social foundations.”
Corruption, this nativist vision claims, can be cured by discipline and punishment. Harsh laws and punitive measures, including a death penalty, are demanded by the Baba for those held guilty of financial corruption. The key to nipping it in the bud, however, is bodily and mental discipline introduced at a tender age. Yog, it is asserted, not only rejuvenates the individual body like “a cell-phone charger,” but also revives the nation. “Individual and the nation are afflicted with a number of diseases, sorrows, thoughts, and evils. Yog-seva is the cure to all of them.” Yog includes bodily discipline such as breathing and dietary practices, as well as moral discipline such as hard work and truthfulness. A clear program of national rejuvenation based upon Hindu cultural nationalism thus is put in place.
There is no doubt that this is ultra-nationalist disciplinary aesthetic at its most sophisticated within a contemporary Indian context—the new face of the Hindutva program. Not unlike its earlier manifestation, here too the individual, the family, the village, the state, the diaspora, and the nation are organically related to each other. The moral and physical health of each one of these units has a bearing upon the other, and therefore needs to be carefully regulated through everyday discipline and, if need be, surgical removal. Outright communalism, however, is toned down and replaced by a majoritarian, culturalist ethos, bringing a somewhat new tone to earlier forms of Hindutva discourse.
Baba and the Gathering Clouds of Neo-Hindutva: Politics of the Apolitical
Whether Baba Ramdev emerges fully as a political actor will depend not merely on the success of his anti-corruption movement, but upon a variety of other factors, many of which are already beginning to be put into place. This includes the support he receives from the beleaguered BJP, now searching for a new populist agenda, and the manner in which organized Hindutva forces of the Sangh Parivar court the Baba. Despite all the political shenanigans taking place around the Baba in recent days, a cursory glance at readers’ responses to articles and blogs, as well as the general opinion caught on television cameras, suggest that much of the popular support for Baba’s anti-corruption fast comes from sections of the society that firmly believe his anti-corruption campaign to be non-political, aimed at a general rejuvenation of the nation. While anti-Congress sentiment undoubtedly runs high in these responses, the predominant sentiment is that this is a cause that extends beyond party lines and touches each citizen of the country, irrespective of their political affiliations.
This is clearly the politics of the apolitical. The burgeoning Indian middle-class likes to pretend that it is supporting a non-partisan cause that impacts the entire population. This has been the case with earlier Hindutva mobilizations where you were considered a good Indian only if you supported the correction of a historical wrong. More recently, the platform of the apolitical has emerged as a dangerous ground where the clouds of popular fascisms gather in a language of liberal protest. In many ways, the yoga camp at Ramlila grounds is a vernacular and mass extension of a vigilante society combined with notions of crowd justice. Take away the English, the cosmopolitanism, and the token liberalism from citizen journalists and candlelight vigils, and we have in place a much larger populist phenomenon such as the Baba and his yog-dharm. A deep mistrust of the political and judicial process characterizes both.
The Baba himself, however, will remain a flashpoint on the political spectrum unless he categorically join hands with the existing forces of Hindutva. He has personal good relations with many of them and allegations that his anti-corruption movement is organized by the RSS have been flying around. However, his brand of Swadeshi socialism will hardly endear him to proponents of economically neo-liberal agenda within the BJP. His occasional ecumenism—the Baba once famously reportedly that one need not utter Om while performing yoga and saying Allah would be just as effective—can make him an uncomfortable ally for the religious rightwing to support. And his vernacular idiom and social conservatism has already alienated him to a certain yuppie constituency that no political party can entirely dismiss. It waits to be seen whether this apolitical political agenda of national rejuvenation and Swadeshi socialism will translate into electoral successes. No doubt, the BJP is wondering the same. For now, however, they and the Sangh Parivar are happy to ride the popular bandwagon of Baba Ramdev’s yogic cures of the nation’s afflictions.
Varuni Bhatia is Assistant Professor, Centre for South Asian Studies, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
 http://www.divyayoga.com/introduction/histroy.html. Accessed June 3, 2011.
 Vide documentary on PYP, available at http://www.divyayoga.com/documentry-on-pyp.html. Accessed on June 6, 2011. See also http://haryanainstitutes.com/a215260-swami-ramdevs-patanjali-yogpeeth-inagurated-by.cfm. Accessed on June 6, 2011.
 For information about their activities, check http://www.divyayoga.com/divya-yog-mandir/a-campuses/pantanjali-yogpeeth-i.html. Accessed on June 3, 2011.
 Vide http://www.divyayoga.com/divya-yog-mandir.html. Accessed on June 6, 2011.
 Vide http://yoggram.divyayoga.com/how-to-get-registration.html. Accessed on June 3, 2011.
 http://www.pranapositive.com/shm/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=15&Itemid=15. Accessed on June 6, 2011. The Poddar family has been a key financial supporter of the Baba’s organization and endeavors. On one occasion, they also defrayed the cost of all those traveling to Hardwar to attend one of the Baba’s many Yog camps. This camp was meant for training young teachers who would teach yoga in the country and abroad.
 Ibid. See also, http://bharat-swabhiman.com/en/. Accessed June 6, 2011.
 https://www.facebook.com/bharatswabhimantrust. Accessed on June 5, 2011.
 http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/article2071609.ece. Accessed on June 5, 2011.
 Vide, http://www.rashtradharm.com/. Accessed June 7, 2011.