India has recently received the Geographical Indication (GI) certification for Tangail Saree which originated in Bangladesh. Why does Bangladesh have a better claim to Tangail Saree's GI and what can we do about it?
On January 2, 2024, the Government of West Bengal in India received the Geographical Indication (GI) certification for ‘Tangail Saree of Bengal’. On February 1, 2023, India’s Ministry of Culture claimed on their official Facebook page that “The Tangail saree, originating from West Bengal, is a traditional handwoven masterpiece. Renowned for its fine texture, vibrant colors, and intricate Jamdani motifs, it epitomizes the region’s rich cultural heritage.” Upon facing fierce criticism and protest from Bangladeshi citizens online, the Indian Ministry of Culture was compelled to take down the post from their social media. The underlying question is how was Bangladesh hijacked from claiming its intellectual ownership of the century old Tangail saree, and why is the Indian claim over the Tangail saree largely inconclusive?
Tracking Back the Origin
Tangail, a district in the central region of Bangladesh, has a traditional, centuries-old handloom industry, which was witnessed by Ibne Battuta himself as articulated in his travel stories. Centuries ago, a tribe of Hindu tentsmen known as the ‘Basak’ community settled in Tangail district after receiving invitations and patronage from zamindars (landlords) of the Delduar, Santosh, and Gharinda areas of Tangail. The descendants of Muslin saree weavers, their original residence was in the Dhamrai and Chauhatta areas of Dhaka district in Bangladesh. The favorable weather and other conditions made the Basaks build their community based on Tangail. Soon, people from other communities also joined in the handloom business. The Muslim weavers are known as ‘Jola’. The Basak Community, based on the Patrail Union of Tangail, is considered the pioneer of the original making process of Tangail sarees.
Before the partition of India, the Tangail saree weavers used to travel to Kalkata to sell the sarees. After the partition, Bajitpur in Tangail became the central hub for the Tangail saree business. Buyers from India, Nepal, and England visited the Bajitpur haat (market) to buy the famous Tangail sarees. Witnessing the massive demand and huge influx of foreign buyers, the Karatia zamindar family established a massive haat in the river port of Karatia.
When Mahatma Gandhi called the ‘Swadeshi Movement’ to boycott foreign products and encourage local products, the handloom industry in Tangail flourished exponentially. After the partition and liberation wars, many of these Hindu weavers migrated to India. However, Tangail’s handloom industry remained strong as the Basaks, who chose to stay in Tangail, continued the tradition with other communities.
Geographical Indication (GI)
When it comes to Geographical Indication (GI) products, their history and origin matter the most. According to the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO)
First, GI recognition increases the export competitiveness of the product. As the GI tag signifies global branding, a long standing reputation, authenticity, and uniqueness of the product, consumers, especially in foreign markets, tend to value such products more, as such certification increases consumer’s trust and confidence. The country that possesses the GI certification gets to extract the most benefit from the product, as other competing countries face difficulties in replicating it.
Second, such GI certification is also part of broader cultural diplomacy. Countries can garner some form of soft power on the global stage by monopolizing their control over such traditional and unique products.
Besides economic and diplomatic interests, there is another reason that makes GI instrumental. Such GI recognition often means the cultural preservation of communities whose lives revolve around the product. Thus, the GI certification holds immense cultural, economic, and diplomatic significance.
Such significance can be evidenced by the fight between India and Pakistan over the GI tag on Basmati rice. Both India and Pakistan are in the middle of a GI war to obtain Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status in the EU, as gaining such status will boost the exports of one and halt the export earnings of another.
Despite being enriched and endowed with historically and culturally significant products, Bangladesh has long been away from registering its GI products. The enactment of the Geographical Indication Products (Registration and Protection) Act 2013 and the Geographical Indication Products (Registration and Protection) Rules 2015. The promulgation of such a legal regime in Bangladesh has facilitated the registration of 21 GI products till now.
Criticisms to India’s Claim
The West Bengal State Handloom Weavers Co-Operative Society Limited applied for the GI accreditation of the Tangail Saree of Bengal with the support of the Government of West Bengal. The journal report published for the application outlined three major specifications to claim the proprietorship of Tangail saree – product, community, and geographical specifications.
The journal report admits that “weaving of the Tangail saree of Bengal was basically confined within a particular Hindu weaver’s community in East Bengal, having the surname Basak.” However, the report attempts to make the case that after the partition of Bengal in 1947 and the liberation war in 1971, the Basak community migrated to West Bengal, where India provided them shelter and livelihood. And after the migration of the Basak community, West Bengal became the hub of Tangail sarees with their ‘hybrid’ and ‘unique’ designs.
First, one of the preconditions for attaining a GI tag is that the product has to be produced in the specific region of that name. For instance, Darjeeling Tea specifically refers to its origin in Darjeeling, not somewhere else. And based on that historical ground, Darjeeling Tea became the first GI product in India in October 2004. Let’s take Champagne as an example. The champagne to which we refer today comes from the wine region within the historical province of Champagne in the northeast of France. Other examples include Columbian Coffee, Banarasi Paan and Longjing Tea. As simple as it gets, the name ‘Tangail’ is in the name of ‘Tangail Saree’ that does not refer to any other place, except the Tangail district in Bangladesh.
Even if Wes Bengal has a place named “Tangail,”, this does not take away the fact that Tangail sarees’ reputation or popularity as well as distinctive qualities came from the fact that these sarees originated in Tangail. Mirpur is one of the 10 districts in Pakistan’s Azad Kashmir. But when we refer to Mirpuri Katan Saree, we point towards Dhaka’s Mirpur.
Second, even though a lot of members of the Basak community migrated to West Bengal and started weaving Tangail sarees in areas, including Fulia, this does not hijack the fact that the Tangail sarees were primarily originated and produced in Bangladesh’s Tangail. The Basak community started weaving Tangail sarees in Tangail and has continued to do so to this date. India is on the wrong side of history in this instance.
What is happening can be called out as outright colonial. Due to a long shared colonial history among Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan, a lot of cultural exchange has occurred among these three nations. If we look through a colonial lens, everything that originates from present-day Bangladesh can be called Indian historic and cultural elements, as Bangladesh was part of the Indian subcontinent for centuries. As per that logic, most of the traditional elements can be called Indian, from wearing a saree to a bindi and from touching the feet of elders to marriage ceremonies.
The only way to resolve this deadlock is by tracing back which cultural and historic elements originated distinctively and undeniably from the areas of the past Indian subcontinent that we now know as Bangladesh. As a matter of fact, history suggests that Tangail sarees made by the Basaks are unique to the very land of Tangail and not from any other part of India.
Third, since both the Tangail sarees contain the same name, they can be called “homonymous GIs.” Even though both countries have the right to claim the GI accreditation, there is one major catch. If awarding the GI tag to both nations creates confusion or misleads consumers and markets, only one country will be able to attain the GI certification. In this instance, the country that produces the most and where the product is widely known can claim its rights to the product. In both cases, India falls short and Bangladesh remains ahead.
As of now, Bangladesh’s Department of Patents, Designs and Trademarks (DPDT) under the Ministry of Industry has recognized the Tangail sarees as the country’s GI product. Leveraging the long standing friendship between Bangladesh and its neighbor India, the matter can be resolved diplomatically. If a diplomatic approach fails to settle the issue, an appeal should be made based on the constitution of WIPO.
More importantly, all the pertinent organizations and ministries should be more proactive in securing the intellectual rights of Bangladesh’s heritage and culture. Widespread reluctance among state agencies and relevant bodies is the primary reason behind Bangladesh failing to claim its rights to the Tangail saree. The registration of Bangladesh’s GI products should not get stuck in the middle of bureaucratic inefficiencies. Responsible organizations and ministries should take the initiative to complete and expedite the documentation process of the historical and cultural elements of the country so that Bangladesh can claim ownership of its own heritage.
About the Author
Shah Adaan Uzzaman is the Blog Administrator at The Confluence. A former Bangladesh Television Debate Champion .and winner of several policy & debate competitions, he is currently a student of IBA, University of Dhaka