India has applied for an exclusive trademark that would grant it sole ownership of the 'basmati' title in the European Union

The word 'Basmati' has its roots in the ancient Indian language of Sanskrit which means aromatic.

From 'Biryani' to 'Pulao' the world's favourite rice preparations are synonymous with the 'basmati' rice. But now 'basmati' is at the centre of a bitter tussle between India and Pakistan.

The first-ever recorded reference to ‘basmati’ rice is found in the epic Indian poem Heer Ranjha dated 1766. Two and a half centuries later Pakistan is challenging India's ownership of the 'basmati'.

India has applied for an exclusive trademark that would grant it sole ownership of the 'basmati' title in the European Union. India says the move is essential to protect its culinary heritage. However, Pakistani rice producers claim this would destroy their livelihood.

Ghulam Murtaza, who is the co-owner, Al-Barkat rice mills near Lahore says the Indian move would be like dropping a nuclear bomb on Pakistani rice exports.

Ghulam says, "Ninety per cent of our work is with basmati rice. We purchase basmati rice from our farmers. So our factories will shut down, and we can’t produce too much [other kinds of rice]. So this is like directly dropping an atomic bomb on us."

In July 2018, India applied for Protected Geographical Indication or PGI status for Basmati rice before the European Union. The process gathered steam after a recent India-EU trade summit. The tag grants intellectual property rights for goods produced in a geographical area. Pakistan challenged India's application soon after.

‘Basmati’ has been a registered GI in India since 2016. Seven Indian states produce the unique variety of rice in the foothills of the Himalayas while this variety of rice is grown only in the Punjab province of Pakistan.

India's application for registration with the European Union also highlights its historical claim.

India mentions the epic Heer Ranjha of 1766. Reports to the UK House of Commons in 1874, along with the Paris & Vienna Universal Exhibitions of 1867 & 1873, mention 'Indian Basmuttee rice’.

French, Spanish & Moroccan courts have also rejected the 'Basmati' trademark for rice grown outside India.

Over the last two decades, India also implemented steps to protect the legal status of 'Basmati', including DNA testing. While Pakistan hasn't taken such steps, it does claim a joint heritage.

Malik Faisal Jahangir who is the Vice-President of Pakistan Rice Exporters Association accepts there are differences but hopes to find a way out. He says, "When it comes to India and Pakistan, historically we have not been good friends and in the coming future we expect our relations to improve which means that if the decision of the joint heritage, heritage comes up it's a win-win situation for both countries and both countries should be happy with it."

India is the world's top exporter of 'Basmati' rice. India exported over 44 lakh tons of basmati in 2018-19 while Pakistan exported about an eighth of that amount. As per EU rules, however, the two countries must try to negotiate an amicable resolution by September.

Geographical Indications expert Delphine Marie-Vivien highlights both, the Indian heritage and the common geographical area of origin.

"Pakistan is a recent country, it was following the partition of India that the state was created. So obviously, historically, the reputation and geographic area [for basmati] are common to India and Pakistan", says Delphine.

Pakistan hopes to convince India to submit a joint application for 'Basmati'. Some reports suggest that the two sides have discussed the issue. However, if an agreement cannot be reached and the European Union rules in India's favour, Pakistan would have the option of approaching the European courts.