Geographical Indication: A bitter-sweet debate among neighbours

Garga Chatterjee

The Tourism Department of the West Bengal government has been promoting West Bengal as a tourism destination as the “Sweetest part of India.” That claim got a certain fillip recently when it was adjudged by Geographical Indication (GI) authorities that West Bengal is the origin of the famed sweet Roshogolla, that white spherical ball of chhana oozing with syrupy sweetness.


The West Bengal government had prepared long and hard to achieve this tag for West Bengal and this sense of accomplishment showed when West Bengal’s premier Mamata Banerjee reacted immediately on Twitter saying, “Sweet news for us all. We are very happy and proud that #Bengal has been granted GI status for Rosogolla.” While this was received with elation by Bengalis, Odias were not quite so elated. For they too had a claim on this tag for something that is similar to Roshogolla but not quite Roshogolla. That beautiful thing is Odisha’s Rasagola. Never before has so much sweetness caused this much bitterness as evidenced by the long-standing debate between Bengalis and Odias on who owns the thing – a pretty fraught contest especially because “the thing” is probably not one thing. Roshogolla is Roshogolla and Rasagola is Rasagola. Odisha is on course to file a claim for GI tag for Rasagola. I, as a Bengali, wish them success.


In the world, there are special friendships and special enemities. However, between intimate neighbours, these become special friendships and special enemities. It is a kind of dialogue that only makes full sense to protagonists and stake-holders. Bengalis and Odias are two neighbour nationalities whose lives became historically intertwined in many ways, especially after the British conquered their respective national homelands and put them under one administration, a system that continues to this day in the form of the Indian Union government. The Hindu Bengali upper caste was one of the earliest collaborators of British imperialism in South Asia. Thus, they raked in the first mover advantage by placing themselves in intermediary professional positions of profit as lower level administrators, petty officials, lower court judges, lawyers, teachers, postmasters, station-masters and all that formed the human resource base of loyalty through which the British ruled. It is also this class that came to represent the fountainhead of dissent and resistance against British imperialism, reaching its peak influence during the movement against the 1905 Partition of Bengal.


However, the clout enjoyed by the British-collaborator Bengali groups also translated into their dominance not only of profitable professions in nations neighbouring Bengal like Assam and Odisha, it also meant that these groups also served as the interpreter of things native for imperial policy making. Thus, Odia language was for some time classified as a dialect of Bangla – not by any merit of logic but by sheer clout of Bengali dominance in the written literary and academic sphere in areas of the erstwhile Bengal presidency, which also included Odisha.


In fact, for some years, Bangla was the medium of education for Odiyas in their own national homeland. No one likes that and neither did the Odias and with the development of a critical mass of Odia bourgeoisie, many of these wrongs were successively corrected, culminating in the administrative separation of Odisha from Bengal. In fact, the development of Odia national consciousness owes its development to Bengali dominance over Odisha, the inspiration that Odia students of late 19th century Kolkata received from political narratives of that metropolis and Bengali styles of political organizing and self-identity articulation in no small way. The sweet-meat culture of Bengal and Odisha as well as the Roshogolla debate are bitter-sweet reminders of that special legacy of closeness and mutual learning.


Now it has been adjudged beyond much doubt that what people know as Roshogolla for the last hundred years or so came into being around mid-19th century in Kolkata, now the capital of West Bengal. The whole concept of GI owes its origin to the White anxiety of protecting trade monopoly on their products in markets of coloured people after having acquired capital and know-how from lands of coloured people without which things like Scotch would have remained at the level of liquors of coloured lands that did not have the advantage of investment in the fine-tuning of the production process, access to captive markets and, most importantly, the status of lifestyle and fine-living aspiration accessory among colonized peoples. In some micro-sense, same might have been the case for Roshogolla. With the tradition of circulation of Brahmin Odiya cooks in colonial Bengal, who is to say what role did circulation of artisanal knowledge between Odisha and Bengal play in the making of West Bengal’s Roshogolla? We might never know. In some ways, a GI tag also emphasizes constancy and is an impediment to innovation and exchange, a reactive MacBurger style homogenization of artisanal knowledge in a world where trade and market ethos of White lands have now become the standard.


In this world, depth of pockets, market access, business ownership and advertising trumps the particularity of artisanal knowledge any day. Authenticity becomes a matter of packaging. Thus one encounters the sad spectacle of a product called the ‘Nagpur Rasgulla’, sold by a Delhi entity which originates from Rajasthan. If the GI tag of Roshogolla for West Bengal actually helps in creating a level playing field for the Bengali artisans vis-à-vis electronic payment fired ‘Nagpur Rasgulla’ marketeers, it will indeed be a good thing. But I doubt it. For nothing today is outside the sphere of money, even in terms of representation. Thus, the Wikipedia article on Roshogolla names it as a variant of ‘Rasgulla’ – a distortion of Roshogolla in both pronunciation and product. But the dominance of the channels of representation by Anglo-Hindi players makes the macabre as normal. The distortion becomes the standard. The authentic becomes a variant of the distortion.


Let me return to neighbourliness. Neighbourliness assumes tight borders. In reality, there are no such things. During my student days at the Medical College, Kolkata, those from the Odisha neighbouring West Bengal district of Medinipur would be ridiculed as being part Odiya. But that is the reality of borderlands. Hence, the lived fluid reality of many people in the borderlands on either side of the Bengal-Odisha border was aptly captured by a friend who told me that he had learned how to be Odiya in Cuttack and a Bengali in Medinipur.