Political Humbuggery, The New York Times, and Indian Shills
First published by India Facts, June 21, 2016
Is this possible too – that cow urine can tantalize the taste-buds of the readers of the venerable New York Times? It seems so, especially if it is garnished with generous doses of phrases like the “Hindu Right”, “Hindu nationalists”, “Hindus’ nativist pride”, etc. In a recent NYT op-ed, two Indian activists/lawyers have urged the Indian government not to patent cow urine. That the NYT would suddenly be interested in the uses of cow urine is surprising, given that its reporters and commentators have gone to town mocking and berating Hindus about their reverence for the cow, but it seems that nothing need come as a surprise on Indian matters in this newspaper which seems desperate to hang Hindus by the tail of a cow if not by the trunk of Lord Ganesha. Sudhir Krishnaswamy, one of the co-authors of the commentary, and who now occupies the B. R. Ambedkar Visiting Professorship in Indian Constitutional Law at the prestigious Columbia University, seems to have no compunction in fishing for red herrings to sprinkle the path of the easily led and ideologically gullible readers of The New York Times. The writers do not seem to know or cannot care explain what “patenting cow urine” means, but they are extremely clever in concocting all kinds of conspiracies and in purposefully loading their commentary with Hinduphobic rhetoric knowing that this will always tempt the editors to lead their bovine readers up an Indian alley! It is the new rope trick that the left/secular media have designed to distract the attention of their readers from more important matters and real news.
As a friend pointed out after reading the op-ed piece, “Modi isn’t trying to patent cow urine; this headline and the thrust of the story plays up on bigoted stereotypes”. He correctly pointed out that while the thrust of the commentary is in opposing patents on traditional medicine and natural products in India, not cow urine, “…the op-ed in fact is a stalking horse for those elsewhere who would pick up Ayurvedic and other traditional medicine and patent them”. Forget about intelligent lawyering, even simple commonsense would indicate that government labs patenting traditional medicine could in fact stop private companies from patenting them for profit and allow for the open use of such medicine/treatments. So, who is selling what to whom in this cunningly headlined commentary? Would it not be curious that The NYT might be backing those who would patent traditional medicine in the West? Could the NYT and its hired Indian guns be batting for private individuals and corporations who seek to raid the Indian storehouse and claim what they find there as theirs?
Or it could be the case that the authors are clueless to their real purpose or fully aware of the contours of their thesis. For example, there are already cases of patent laws being used to stop private corporations and individuals from patenting yoga poses or Basmati rice in the West. My friend points out that the Basmati patent was stopped after the Indian government protested. He also alluded to reports that earlier this month the Indian Minister for Health and Family Welfare, J. P. Nadda told the UN that India would “ensure access to affordable medicines” through its continuing commitment to the so-called “TRIPS flexibilities” under WTO regulations that allow countries to allow the making of cheap generic copies of medicines under some circumstances by issuing what are called compulsory licenses.
If that is so, what can we make of this paragraph in the commentary? “The B.J.P. government released India’s first National Intellectual Property Rights Policy last month, and it is dangerously misguided. Although the paper reaffirms the basic tenets of India’s admirably farsighted patent laws, it also calls for protecting traditional remedies like cow urine. Taken to its logical conclusion, this policy could open the door to many more exceptions, playing into the hands of patent-happy international pharmaceutical companies”. Yes, the government wants to protect traditional remedies from poaching by commercial actors, Indian or Western. What could be better than that for the protection of the poor consumer/patient/native practitioner? What is the “logical conclusion” about protective barriers proposed by the government? That the commercial actors would haul the Indian government to WTO, the Indian government would lose, and therefore cow urine would be patented by Novartis? Or, let us try to decipher, if we can, what Prof. Krishnaswamy and his co-author might actually be concerned about: what kinds of exceptions would the policy create, and for whom? If the government claims monopoly, for example, over cow urine, could one seek to patent extracts from human urine for human urine therapy and sell his piss exclusively to Pfizer? If only the authors had taken care to use their 1,000 word limit to actually argue their case instead of loading it with ugly rhetoric we might have indeed learned something. As it is, it is no more than a red rag to lure “progressive readers” to their “anti-Hindu” lairs.
Or, let us consider this paragraph in the commentary: “Today, the Indian government holds more than a dozen patents related to cow urine and has filed applications for them in nearly 150 countries. Many nations, including the United States, France and South Korea, have recognized these, but not India, which has much stricter standards for patents. For now”. So, if the Indian government-run scientific labs have filed patent claims, and other countries have recognized the Indian claims, the Indian government has not recognized its own patents? Or, is it that the claims by the Indian government have been challenged in Indian courts and the courts have not ruled in favor of the government? Or, is it that the Indian Patent Office has expressed concerns? What is also not probed in the commentary is the fact that the U.S. patent office, for example, has already given its assent to the Indian scientists’ patent claim. Would it not therefore behoove the authors to plead with the US Patent Office not to do so? Which doors to protecting native knowledge and practices be guarded first and last? Either the authors do not know how to “solve the problem of cow urine patents”, or they do know but cannot express themselves clearly, or they are simply involved in the act of specious political spinning to keep the “progressive” hearths warm and cozy.
Finally, let us look at this excerpt from the commentary: “Unlike many other countries, India does not allow patents for natural substances, traditional remedies, frivolous inventions or marginal innovations…. This is a good thing — a great thing, in fact. Having fewer patents means more competition for more generic drugs, which means more affordable medicine for more people”. Fine, the Indian government does not allow the patenting of natural substances. Where did the authors find out that the Indian government is patenting cow urine, and what would that mean indeed? Having fewer patents for natural substances mean more competition for more “generic drugs”, the authors claim. Really? Generic drugs are re-engineered drugs of those already patented by other pharmacies/labs so that they can avoid charging the high prices demanded by the original drug maker. They are copies of brand name drugs. Where are the copy editors of the NYT, or do they go out for some basmati rice and chicken tikka whenever they edit India stories and commentaries?
We can try a little harder to figure out what exactly the argument is and we might conclude that generic drugs are more difficult to produce if the Indian government holds patents for drugs based on cow urine. Before you can say, “What?!” let us see if there is a way out of the labyrinth that Prof. Krishnaswamy has constructed: if the original government contention is that big/commercial pharma cannot be allowed to patent natural products because it would rob the Indian consumer/user/producer of indigenous products/drugs/treatments that they have always had access to, where would, if indeed the authors’ claims are true at all, the Indian government (or Mr. Modi, as the NYT claims) go with “patenting cow urine”, and consequently any other imaginable native product or practice? Is it the contention of the authors that the Indian government would manufacture drugs, based on Indian government patents, and charge an arm and a leg to patients worldwide? Or, do they fear that because the Indian government labs patented something out of natural products others too could go that route and patent extracts from natural products? If it is the goal of the Indian government or scientific institutions affiliated with the government to identify as many of the Indian natural treatments/products as possible so that there is little room for individual scientists or the for-profit pharmaceutical industries to find such remedies/products and claim it as their own and charge you and me a thousand dollars a pill what could be wrong?
This is an important issue and it should have been carefully parsed and argued. Instead, what we have is a provocative and shoddy piece of commentary, and it confirms fears that the Western media and academe are willing to hire Indian shills, who in the pursuit of their anti-BJP/ anti-Modi/anti-Hindu cause, are willing to “spit on their mothers”, as one colleague colorfully put it. It is a tragedy and a travesty that an academic occupying the Ambedkar chair would stoop to demagoguery because he does not like Mr. Modi or because he despises the Bharatiya Janata Party or those who proudly claim to be Hindus. Dr. Ambedkar was a brilliant man, a man of honor, and whatever his political quarrels might have been with his contemporaries he would not have stooped to lies and provocations. Let us call such commentary what it really is: political humbuggery.