In this era of globalization, IPR (intellectual property rights) has gained its importance as a mainstream subject of legal studies. And this effect has befallen the syrupy sweetness of a dessert known as Roshogolla (Bengali)/Rasgulla (Hindi). In June 2015, the Odisha Government claimed Geographical Indication Tag (GI Tag) over this delicacy. The Odiyas celebrated Rasagula Dibas (Roshogolla Day) on 30th July in solidarity with the claim. This subsequently led to the Science and Technology Department of the West Bengal Government deciding to contest legally for the GI tag in August 2015. However, neither of the two states has started an official tussle for the GI Tag of Roshogolla. In this light, let’s first understand what Geographical Indication is all about.
Governed by The Geographical Indication of Goods (Registration and Protection) Act, 1999, the terms “geographical indication” and “indication” have been defined under Sections 1 (3) (e) and 1 (3) (g), respectively.
Sec 1 (3) (e) – ‘Geographical Indication’, in relation to goods, means an indication which identifies such goods as agricultural goods, natural goods or manufactured goods as originating, or manufactured in the territory of a country, or a region or locality in that territory, where a given quality, reputation or other characteristic of such goods is essentially attributable to its geographical origin and in case where such goods are manufactured goods one of the activities of either the production or of processing or preparation of the goods concerned takes place in such territory, region or locality, as the case may be.
Sec 1 (3) (g) – ‘Indication’ includes any name, geographical or figurative representation or any combination of them conveying or suggesting the geographical origin of goods to which it applies. The term ‘name’ includes any abbreviation of a name.
While the battle continues as to whether this delightful dessert originated in Odisha or Bengal, it left IP Specialists and Legal Analysts thinking on whether the dish actually deserves a GI tag or whether a GI tag is necessary for it.
Firstly, the dish, although commercially distributed by K. C. Das, is not a subject matter of commercial and competitive advantage and revenue for the States of West Bengal or Odisha. It is marketed all over the world, but its production neither affects the employment of Roshogolla makers/workers and socio-economic structure of Bengal and Odisha nor does its production regulate the markets of the two states or of India. Since protection of the above is an important facet of GI, a question arises as to whether it is really necessary to grant GI tag to Roshogolla.
Secondly, looking at the perspective of maintaining cultural heritage, there are too many stories revolving around the origin of the dessert. While Odisha claims it to be a tradition dating back to the 12th Century of the khira mohana (which later evolved into Palaha Rasagula) being offered as a bhog to the Goddess Lakshmi at the Jagannath Temple, Puri, Bengal claims it to be an invention of their own which dates back to the 19th century (introduced in 1868 by Kolkata-based confectioner, Nobin Chandra Das/ or in 1866 by Braja Moira, Das only popularized it) at least. However, both of these claims lack substantiality as there are several studies and theories that point in various other directions.
According to food historians K. T. Achaya and Chitra Banerji, there are no references to cheese (including chhena) in India before the 17th century. The milk-based sweets were mainly made up of khoa, before the Portuguese influence led to introduction of cheese-based sweets. Therefore, the possibility of a cheese-based dish being offered at Jagannath Temple in 12th century is highly unlikely. According to Nobin Chandra Das’ descendant Animikh Roy and historian Haripada Bhowmik, rasgulla is not even mentioned as one of the chhappan bhog (“56 offerings”) in the early records of the Temple; the name of the sweet was coined in Bengal. They also state that it would have been a blasphemy to offer something made from spoiled milk (chhena) to a deity. These theories and studies can tear down Odisha’s claim of GI tag over Rasagula.
Keeping in mind the possibility of the above studies, and the fact that milk-based cuisines (even if not chhena) were definitely a part of India since centuries, it would not be completely possible to disregard the theory of the Bengali culinary historian Pritha Sen, in the mid-18th century, many Odia cooks were employed in Bengali homes who arguably have introduced Rasgulla along with many other Odia dishes. According to another theory, it is possible that the Bengali visitors to Puri might have carried the recipe for rasgulla back to Bengal in the nineteenth century.
The only thing that can be said with certainty is that Rasagula / Roshogolla is an invention of East India. If, however, the recipe came from another part of Bengal (as many other studies indicate), it is completely possible that the point of origin lies somewhere in Bengal prior to partition and now that area is in Bangladesh territories, but let’s leave such theories and speculations to the food historians.
Thirdly, as per the definitions in the Act, it is beneficial and easy if the name of the goods indicates a point of origin. The name Roshogolla is a very literal term and only indicates the nature of the dish [Rosh /ras – syrup; golla / gulla – ball] and not the point of origin. Since the history of the dish is confusing, a geographically indicated name of it would be beneficial for the GI tag.
Despite the issues pointed out above, India is secretly waiting for the Roshogolla battle to resurface, and this time, from the legal point of view. Previously, all the GI cases in India have had substantive claims and it would be interesting to note what the courts would actually opine in this case.