Roadmap to GI status for Tangail Saree: A comprehensive look

Recently, the Indian state of West Bengal was awarded the geographical indication tag for Tangail sarees — a decision that has stirred up considerable debate and concern.


Tangail sarees have been an essential part of Bangaldesh's cultural heritage since the craft of producing taant began in Pathrail, Tangail. PHOTO: THE DAILY STAR

March 1, 2024

DHAKA – Recently, the Indian state of West Bengal was awarded the geographical indication (GI) tag for Tangail sarees — a decision that has stirred up considerable debate and concern. Tangail sarees have been an essential part of our cultural heritage since the craft of producing taant began in Pathrail, Tangail. To understand the stance regarding GI better a roundtable discussion was held at The Daily Star Centre on Monday, 12 February, 2024 with economists, craft revivalists, and legal experts from Bangladesh and India.

Here we publish a summary of the discussion.

Through the centuries, amidst various waves of geographic partition and consolidation, Bangladeshi weavers and associated craftsmen of the trade have demonstrated their skills to the world through unique designs and production techniques. They have also managed to evolve and reinvent their craft with the changing times to remain relevant.

After the decline of the Muslin trade, the Hindu artisans of Dhamrai, who used to weave plain Muslin cloth for the European market, migrated to Pathrail, Tangail upon the invitation of the local Zamindars. They shifted their skills to focus more on weaving fine sarees for the local market.

I set up Tangail Saree Kutir in the early ’80s, and have since then continued working with the craftspeople to create weaves that cater to the modern women while maintaining the authenticity of their craft.

During the 1947 Partition, Basaks relocated to the West Bengal and established trade there. However, the intellectual property still belongs to the weaver community in Tangail. There are subtle differences that we can notice between weaves of West Bengal and Tangail — it is demonstrated in both yarn processing and the design aesthetics.

There is an uproar amongst the Basak community of Tangail regarding the recent GI accreditation of Tangail Saree by West Bengal. We have been engaged in this craft for hundreds of years.

Furthermore, there is no place called Tangail in West Bengal. Nevertheless, West Bengal has registered its local saree as “Tangail”. This is unacceptable and ironic as we export approximately 75 lac sarees to India every year.

It is extremely disheartening to know that India, particularly West Bengal, has been granted the GI for our craft. If we leave this usurpation unchallenged, our future generations will not forgive us. What legacy will we be leaving behind for them?

Frankly, we do not want to engage in endless theoretical discussion on this issue. We want proactive steps to reclaim our heritage. It is not about profit; it is about our identity. Our community will come forward to assist, if necessary, with any credible steps to retain our heritage.


GIs are distinctive signs that tell us where a product comes from and how special it is. Some of these signs have become well-known and trusted. If we do not protect them, dishonest businesses might use them wrongly for their financial benefit. This is undesirable for both the buyers and the honest producers.

GIs can also help create a competitive advantage for products in the international market because the fact that a product is eligible to have a GI tag implies that it has certain unique qualities for which it has gained a reputation.

Socially and culturally, GIs help safeguard the cultural heritage of a region by preserving the distinct characteristics and qualities of products tied to that specific location. This preservation not only maintains the authenticity of the products but also contributes to the overall cultural identity and heritage of the region. It may also help to get a special price for the uniqueness of a product. Of course, this is not automatic. It requires branding and marketing of the product simultaneously.

The producers of GI goods will have to be linked with the market so that they can benefit economically by producing the goods. Without GI, similar products may be available at a cheaper price attracting more consumers. This will in turn help them expand their businesses and continue to keep prices lower as they have economies of scale. As a result, the unique product may lose its acceptability amidst price wars and economies of scale.

To hold onto the heritage, give value to the exclusivity, and justify the price and hard work behind a product, GI tags are very important. Otherwise, heritage products are certain to get lost, especially due to the acceleration of technology, power looms, and economies of scale.

The process of GI claim for Tangail saree by our neighbouring India commenced in 2020. A few local newspapers, including a prominent Bengali daily, had carried an exclusive report on the issue back then. And yet, as a nation, we have vented in collective protest only after India was granted the GI right of Tangail saree last month. Our age-old craft Nakshi kantha was claimed by India 16 years ago (in 2008), yet no step has been taken by Bangladesh till today. We are reactive, not proactive in our actions.

In 1995, we signed the TRIPS, Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Right, as a member country of WTO, World Trade Organization, but our law on GI was enacted in 2013 – almost eighteen years later that too as a hurried response to the claim of India for the GI right of the Jamdani saree.

Our civil society led by BRAC, the National Crafts Council, CPD, and the History Department of Dhaka University played a pivotal role in enacting the GI Act. It would not have been possible without the efforts of the late Ruby Ghuznavi, Munira Emdad, and Dr Dipu Moni — the Minister for Foreign Affairs at the time — in making the GI law a reality. I personally had the opportunity to work as a part of the successful Jamdani GI platform in 2014.

Sadly, the hard-earned GI Law was of no use until 2015, since we failed to formulate rules under the law. By the time our GI Rules were in place, India had already claimed GI rights to 108 items!

Bangladesh has thousands of items fit to be registered as GI products but we have registered only 21 of them in the last 11 years. Now to get back to the efficiency of our neighbouring country, they have so far accredited almost 500 plus items as their GI indicator.

We have failed to domestically register the GI of roshogolla, Sundarban madhu, and garad saree, which have already been registered as GI products of India.

We have also failed to protect our GIs internationally. Bangladesh should have applied for the cancellation or correction of the Indian registration of Jamdani saree, Tangail saree, Nakshi Kantha and Himsagar aam under Section 27 of the Indian Geographical Indications Act 1999.

The fault is actually ours and I believe it’s due to a lack of proactive measures, vigilance, and coordination among the stakeholders. We still do not understand what GI is and the enormous economic value attached to GI tags. Even to this day, many are unaware of the actual process of GI registration— who to go to for the claim and where to get one’s grievances heard.

The proper way to expedite the process would be to begin with an extensive survey of the products that can be enlisted under the GI accreditation but we have no co-ordination among different Ministries responsible for the GI registration. GI itself is under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Industries, while crafts fall under both the Cultural Affairs Ministry and the Textile and Jute Ministry. GIs of our agricultural and natural products on the other hand come under the Ministry of Agriculture.

Once again, we need to form a GI platform with civil society, academic researchers, different government agencies and industry stakeholders to protect our GI rights in Bangladesh and abroad.

As a parting note, I would like to say that GI claims cannot remain as a cosmetic gesture, there must be economic benefit attached to it. The core benefit of GI is that it adds value to Branding Bangladesh and GI tagging opens up the door of global branding for our products. GI tagging should fetch higher prices for the producers and craftsmen. If Bangladesh does not take any steps to register our domestically recognised GI products in the international market, obtaining GI rights will remain only an academic exercise.

GI may either comprise names of places or words used to identify products that come from certain places and have special characteristics. So, while it is apparent that Darjeeling Tea originates from Darjeeling, it may not be apparent where Tulaipanji rice originates from, because its geographical origin from Dinajpur does not find mention in its name. Tulaipanji, which is the product name, simply means scented and soft like cotton.

The registration for Tangail Saree of Bengal obtained by the West Bengal State Handloom Weavers Co-Operative Society uses both the product name and the geography – “Bengal” or ‘West Bengal’ is used to denote the geography and Tangail saree is being used as a product name/trade term. Here, Tangail is not being used to denote a place in Bangladesh. Whether that is appropriate or not is a question that has not been debated.

While the historical origin of the Tangail saree is undoubtedly in Bangladesh, the registration papers speak of how the craft came to our country after partition. The details in the certificate also specifically mention that the Tangail Saree of Bengal is different or can be differentiated from the Tangail Saree of Bangladesh. It is also mentioned that Tangail Saree of Bengal is a hybrid version of Shantipur techniques (a city and a municipality in the Ranaghat subdivision of Nadia district in the Indian state of West Bengal) and the authentic Tangail hailing from Bangladesh. So, the question naturally comes up as to whether both sarees (i.e. the original from Bangladesh and the hybrid from Bengal) can be simultaneously termed, Tangail.

Ideally, these questions should be asked before the grant of registration, but in the absence of opposition or challenge of any sort, it may not be fair to assume that the Indian IP Office will refuse the registration simply because the trade name of the product matches a geographical area in Bangladesh, from which the sarees got their name.

The description in the registration is fairly broad and encompasses a wide variety of techniques and yarn, so in reality, it is difficult to discern from the registration what specific distinctions exist between the Tangail sarees of both countries. It is also incorrect that the mere fact that India has granted a domestic GI registration, excludes Bangladesh from making a similar application, not just in Bangladesh but also in India.

Inherent in the registration is a recognition that Tangail saree weaving originated in Bangladesh, and in that backdrop, the Indian GI Act envisages Bangladesh filing its application to register Tangail saree as a craft from Bangladesh.

The TRIPS Agreement generally notes that geographical indications have to be protected to avoid misleading the public and to prevent unfair competition. However, it lays down an enhanced level of protection for wines and spirits. Some countries, including India, have been arguing that all geographical indications (not just wines and spirits) should be provided an enhanced level of protection which would help improve the ability to differentiate them in the export market and prevent other countries ‘usurping’ their terms. The Indian Act reflects this position in treating all GIs on the same footing as wines and spirits.

Several countries oppose this position, the chief being the United States. They argue that the existing level of protection under TRIPs is adequate and extending it to all products would disrupt existing marketing practices.

In what is arguably an attempt to justify cultural misappropriation, they argue that migrants have taken the methods of making the products and the names with them to their new homes and have been using them in good faith and should be allowed to do so. This debate seems to touch on a similar nerve.

There are three points to consider here.

Number one is – whether weavers in West Bengal actually practice this craft? My answer would be, yes, they do. Having personally visited Phulia, West Bengal, I have seen weavers from Tangail resettled in the specified location, post Partition. These very craftspeople continued with their weaving profession in their new home.

Additionally, it can be said that there is also significant patronage from the West Bengal government to this particular sector.

Then comes the second question. Can India call a craft by the “name of a region” that belongs to a neighbouring country — over which it has no claims? It must also be mentioned that there is also no place called “Bengal” in India. So, both Tangail and Bengal are contentious labels. This is perhaps the main point to challenge. Not the craft per se, but the name is the focal point of discussion.

At the end of it, what is our takeaway? Instead of always playing catch up, we can think of a comprehensive national survey of all GI-worthy products and start the registration processes as soon as possible, engaging the actual communities to whom the GI belongs. Additionally, we need to show real economic benefits from GI registration.

Lastly, after completion of the domestic registration, items such as Jamdani, Muslin, etc. need to be considered for GI registration in international markets such as India, the UK, the USA, and such. Side by side, we need to start thinking of patenting designs and working on craft resource centres which document and preserve heritage items.

A final point to highlight is that India and Bangladesh are both each other’s markets for handloom sales. Legalities are one thing, perception is entirely another, so it is of utmost importance for all stakeholders from both nations to treat such issues with utmost sensitivity and respect, even and especially during conflict-of-interest situations.

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