Among the many things small and big that govern India-Pakistan relationship there is one that can be called “why-not-me” aspirations. Whatever one wants, the other disputes it and stakes claim.

Recall the famed Koh-i-Noor diamond that was mined in the present-day Karnataka, but was carried from Lahore, now in Pakistan, in 1858 to be presented to Queen Victoria in London where it remains even today. Both India and Pakistan claimed it, making it convenient for the British to keep it.

The new dispute, however, is over something that adorns and spreads fragrance on the dinner tables of people in both countries, but also across the world.

Virtually ignored in the never-ending India-Pakistan turmoil is the current clash over Basmati rice. For “the rice fit for kings”, both are competing to gain exclusive Geographical Indication (GI) status from the European Union.

India’s 2018 application, which was published in an EU journal on September 11, 2020, asked the bloc to grant “geographical indication” status to its basmati rice, which would tag it as a product inextricably connected to its place of origin. It is similar to Champagne from France, potatoes from Idaho or Kalamata olives from Greece. GI labels often serve as a mark of quality and help exporters charge higher prices.

Waking up to this on June 10, Pakistan laid the counter-claim. Last month, Prime Minister Imran Khan personally chose a Brussels-based law firm to represent his country’s case, to “vehemently oppose” India’s claim.

This is because this particular variety of rice is grown mainly in the two Punjabs. It is big commerce, but also a matter of prestige that neither wants to lose. Turns out that India has a 65 percent share in the global Basmati market while Pakistan has the rest.

But Pakistan’s exports to the European Union have almost doubled over last three years since permissible levels of pesticides on imported agricultural products to the bloc were reduced in 2018, while India has repeatedly failed these tests.

In 2019-20, India produced 7.5 million tonnes, of which 61 percent cent was exported, earning the country Rs 31,025 crore, according to the Ministry of Commerce. Region-wise, India sold $4.3 billion worth of basmati overseas last year, three-quarters of it to the Middle East. Roughly $180 million was sold to the U.S., according to the All India Rice Exporters Assn.

Pakistan’s Basmati exports totaled $582 million in 2018-19, second only to India. It fears that if India gets the GI tag, Pakistan would be effectively kept out of the European market for basmati rice even though it is a major producer.

Although India controls two-thirds of the global basmati market, competition between the nations has grown in recent years as Pakistan increases sales to Europe.

Iran has been India’s major customer. But Indian suppliers have found it difficult to receive payments from Iran without running afoul of U.S. and international sanctions against the Islamic Republic. News reports indicate that Pakistani traders have been able to set up new barter mechanisms with Iran while Indians have struggled to quickly convert their old cash-based deals to barter.

Although an EU designation would not apply in the American market, it could help lift the profile of basmati as an Indian product in the minds of global consumers.

India’s Basmati cultivation is dictated by geography. There is a ‘Basmati growing region’, one which includes the states and Union territories of Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana, Chandigarh, Delhi, Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh. The cold weather of this region is suitable for Basmati cultivation.

But Pakistan too has a Basmati belt, the Kalar bowl, a tract of land in the interfluve between the Ravi and the Chenab rivers, comprising the Narowal, Sialkot, Gujranwala, Hafizabad and Sheikhupura districts in Punjab province.

Basmati has a history that traces it to medieval times. It evenhandedly places its origins in both the present day India and Pakistan.

The Ain-i-Akbari records cultivation of Mushkeen in the subahs of Lahore, Multan, Allahabad, Oudh, Delhi, Agra, Ajmer and the Raisen area of Malwa Subah. Mushkeen, also called Lal Basmati, is the red-husked variant of Basmati. Though not as popular as the light, golden-husked variant today, it was popular in the kitchens of the Mughal Emperors.

The history and folklore of basmati rice is an academic paper published last year in the Journal of Cereal Research. It was written by Subhash Chander, Uma and Siddharth Ahuja.

Another academic paper, Range and Limit of Geographical Indication Scheme: The case of Basmati Rice from Punjab Pakistan is by French professor Georges Giraud. It was published in 2008 in the International Food and Agribusiness Management Review, Volume 11, Issue 1.

It mentions that the romance was translated into English in 1910 by Charles Frederick Usborne, a British Indian Civil Servant and a scholar of Punjabi. The second paragraph of Chapter 16 of Usborne’s The Adventures of Heer and Ranjha describes several foods displayed for a wedding.

It says: All kinds of varieties of rice, even Mushki and Basmutti and Musagir and Begami and Sonputti. It is worth noting that Heer-Ranjha is set in the town of Jhang on the east bank of the Chenab in Pakistan’s Punjab.

There was a time in late 1990s when India and Pakistan teamed up against RiceTec, a Texas-based American firm that sought to appropriate Basmati rice. India at the time actively supported the Pakistani government. Both eventually succeeded in thwarting RiceTec’s scheme.

More than a decade ago, the two countries discussed jointly applying for geographical status for basmati rice. But the talks fell apart after the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, which India blamed on Pakistan, and relations have scarcely improved.

Some Indian legal experts say that even without India claiming exclusivity, the EU could decide to grant geographical protection to “Indian basmati,” meaning that Pakistan couldn’t market its product as basmati without its own designation.

All these claims and competition apart, if Basmati is found in the tragic romance of Heer-Ranjha that the Punjabi Sufi, Waris Shah, composed in 1766/1767, then it is something special. Punjab has separated territorially, but can Waris Shah, like Bulley Shah, or modern-day Mehdi Hasan or Sahir Ludhianvi, be separated?


Mahendra Ved is a veteran journalist who has served with the Times of India, Hindustan Times and United News of India. The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com

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