How the Hamieds are saving the world

By Sujata Anandan

April 15, 2020

The  manner in which Muslims are being demonised un this country by a section of the media and bhakts of the BJP, here is a story that should uplift the hearts of almost everybody else.

In the 1920s, a rich man in India put his son  on board a ship from Bombay to the United Kingdom  in order to acquire a law  degree and become a barrister, as was fashionable among all privileged families in the country at the time. The boy, however, did not want to be a lawyer, his heart was in chemistry, a pursuit without a seeming future in those days. But his father gave him little choice, so while he waved to his father as his ship pulled away, Khwaja Abdul Hamied was already running over other plans in his mind while standing on the deck. He jumped ship halfway through the seas to land in Germany which, in the early decades of the last century, was leading in the study of chemistry and chemicals. He acquired a degree, married a German  Jew who was also a communist – two communities the Nazis hated the most. But before they could be caught by Adolf Hitler’s Gestapo, they escaped Germany and safely reached India.

With his vast knowledge of chemicals, Khwaja Hamied set up the Chemical, Industral and Pharmaceutical Laboratories in 1935 which was shortened to CIPLA decades later after Independence.

Khwaja Hamied was a great fan of Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and got down, in true nationalist spirit, to producing cheaply priced generic drugs for the common people. These included not only medicines for malaria and tuberculosis but also other respiratory disorders, cardiovascular diseases as well as routine and mundane ailments like diabetes and arthritis.

Sometime in the 1970s, Cipla (so renamed in the 1980s) began to manufacture a  drug called Propranolol, patented by a US pharmaceutical giant from Brooklyn in New York, that was used in treating blood pressure, migraines and heart ailments, among others. In a bipolar world at the time, the US was no friend of India and a real superpower. Unlike Donald Trump, it did not need to issue threats for any country in the world to comply to its diktats. It complained to the Indian government. But unlike Narendra Modi last week,  the then prime minister Indira Gandhi did not immediately cave in.

She sent for Yusuf Hamied, Khwaja’s son, himself a chemistry graduate from Cambridge, who had by then taken over the running of the company. When Mrs Gandhi asked how he could violate the patent law on drugs and get India into trouble, Yusuf told Mrs Gandhi the story of his father and why he had set up the company – to bring low priced quality drugs to the poor.

When he had handed his company to his son, Khwaja had told Yusuf just one thing – remember why this company was founded. “Unlike other pharmaceutical companies around the world, we are not here to make profits but to bring relief and health care to the poor who may otherwise have to die for want of quality drugs.”

That is all he was doing, Yusuf told an impressed Mrs Gandhi who could empathise with the concern for the poor. And she turned down the US’s command to India to stop producing the drug, knowing it could have consequences. Americans hated her for this and other acts of defiance but she always had the interests  of her own fellow citizens on top priority.

On Yusuf’s  suggestion she also had the patent law on drugs changed to not include the drug per se, only the process of manufacture as inviolable, so that Cipla could go ahead and produce as many low priced generic drugs for the poor as possible. Since then Cipla has also produced a low cost drug to treat HIV and expanded operations into several developing  countries,  including African nations,  where most HIV and poor patients existed at one time.

This then is the company which produces hydroxychloroquine used in the treatment of malaria, lupus and rheumatoid arthritis hich now has been exported in such large numbers to the United States under threat by a weaker Trump administration, depriving poor Indians of the same. Even before Trump had bullied India into exporting the drug Dr Hamiduddin Pardawala, the infectious diseases specilast at the Saifee Hospital in Bombay, had told some of us to note carefully that countries where malaria (and perhaps tuberculosis) was common were suffering less from Coronavirus than those where malaria was almost non-existent.

So where is malaria almost non-existent? The US, UK, Israel, France, Germany, Spain, Canada etc. In other words, countries which have suffered the maximum infestations. When I think of Germany, I wonder where these nations, who are profusely thanking India now for supplying HCQ to them,  would have been today if Khwaja Hamied and his wife had been caught by the Gestapo and sent off to the concentration camps.

That goes even more forcefully for the bigots of this country who have so demonised the Muslims and communalised the disease – there is something like karma in this world, even if not you but your future generations have to pay for it. Many of them might have got malaria in the past and been prescribed with HCQ that would have helped them develop the anti-bodies to resist CoVid. Many possible afflictions among them will need treating with this drug. Unknowingly, they may have taken many other generic drugs manufactured by this “Muslim’ company and owe the Hamieds a debt of gratitude for keeping their blood pressure under control and diabetes counts in check.

I would like to call this poetic justice without gloating over the fact. No other company in India, and certainly not the world, has done as much to bring affordable health care to poor Indians as has Cipla – and it has not been stingy about its research, often providing pharmaceutical ingredients and processes to other drug companies in the country to manufacture their own.

When India was partitioned Mohammad Ali Jinnah who was also a Bombay  resident and part of the same social circles as the Hamieds offered Khwaja an honourable move to Pakistan. The Hamieds were sure where their sympathies lay – with Gandhiji – and chose to stay back in India.

There are Muslims and then there are Muslims like the Tabligi Jamaatis of this particular Nizamuddin meet (not others who cancelled their own meets  across the country in wake of the pandemic) just like there are Hindus  and Hindus like the bhakts and Sanatanis who kill other Hindus because we do not agree with them.

I do not believe it is right to target all Hindus for the acts of a few crazy cult members among them. Similarly,  a handful of misguided Tabligi Jamaatis do not a whole community make. We  must stop demonising all for the acts of a few.


(This piece was first published by Lokmat Times and National Herald on Sunday, April 12, 2020)