My friends, do not die the way you used to die
I beg you, do not die, wait another year for me
just one more year
we might trade ideas for walking on the street
free of the hour and the banner …
we have other tasks beside searching for graves and elegies
– Mahmoud Darwish
It is very rare in the rather serious world of intellectual property (IP) to have a discussion on the merits and demerits of using geographical indications (GIs) to protect locally produced goods veer into a detailed description of the pleasures of different kinds of Feni, the liquor produced from cashew/coconut in Goa. But that is precisely what one expected from Dwijen Rangnekar, who was as passionate about his Feni as he was about the appropriateness of GIs as a form of protection for it. In the midst of a discussion on the successful registration by the Goa government for a GI on Feni, I rather ill-informedly mentioned that I had only tasted Feni once and it reminded me of nail polish remover. Dwijen took serious objections to the statement and proceeded to give me a connoisseur’s guide to the world of Feni, making me want to rush to the closest Goan outpost to sample it for myself.
But underlying both his interest in Feni as well as GIs was a passionate curiosity and investment in the idea of the local. The lop-sided development of IP laws in the past two decades has meant that expansionist IP regimes have primarily favoured large corporations over individual creators and users and as an IP scholar interested in the intersection between IP and development, Dwijen was acutely aware of this. His work, however, demonstrated the rare instances when IP laws could also be used to promote the interest of local communities. But to be able to bridge the wide world that exists between abstract legal principles and local realities requires more than a sharp legal and analytical outlook, it also requires an ethnographic sensibility which is sensitive to the dynamics of the global, national and the local and this is precisely what Dwijen’s work brought to bear on IP scholarship in India.
Legal scholars usually have more affinities with historians – dwelling as they both do in archives of authority – than they do with anthropologists. But when it comes to a domain like intellectual property which claims to be not just a theory of property but also a theory of culture and creativity, an IP scholar must, of necessity, simultaneously wear the hat of a cultural anthropologist. Scholars like Rosemary Coombe at York have ably demonstrated how a finely attuned understanding of cultural politics leads to a sharper understanding of how IP laws work. While India has had a rich tradition of brilliant IP scholars, what we missed was someone who was able to move between the worlds of international treaties, national legislations and the complex dynamics of power and economics within local communities.
Dwijen’s sudden and all too early demise signals a major loss to the world of IP scholarship and more generally to inter-disciplinary scholarship in law and culture. One of the founding members along with Pratiksha Baxi and others of the Law and Social Sciences Research Network (which has emerged as one of the most significant forums for inter disciplinary scholarship in law), Dwijen was more or less perfectly poised to transition fully into a significant voice from the global south on IP debates. His earlier work was more located in normative principles and is in debate with his own later work which recognised the importance of field work in IP scholarship. There was a significant recalibration of the kinds of questions that he started asking through IP laws.
If his early interest was in the question of the emergence of international norms on GIs and their suitability more generally, his work after the Feni study (to which he devoted a significant number of years) started asking questions of the relationship between law and the construction of geography. In an important article, “Remaking Place: The Social Construction of a Geographical Indication for Feni,” Dwijen argued that social movements often converged across claims to place and in this context GIs for him were a form of a ‘juridical reification of a place-based stabilisation of cultural norms’. But his article also warns us against any naive or romantic idealisation of GIs as a form of local protection and instead situates how dominant business within local communities along with state governments can appropriate the idea of the local. His account of the successful registration of a GI for Feni ably demonstrates that IP laws which are shaped globally can also be the basis of reshaping local politics.
If Dwij’s passionate curiosity was contagious then so was his laughter, sometimes producing disastrous consequences. Pratiksha Baxi recalls a moment from a Critical Legal Studies conference at Hyderabad when Dwijen laughed so loudly at a joke that he fell off his chair. As some poets have described, it was laughter that caught fire. Shamnad Basheer describes one of the last emails that he received from Dwij even as he was battling cancer in which Diwj asked him to ensure that he replied to a query from one of Dwij’s doctoral students at Warwick University, where he was an Associate Professor of Law. If our ideas and our work are the only guarantee we have against the cruel silliness of cancer, then let’s hope that Dwij’s scholarship, like his laughter, will also catch fire and set ablaze a sustained interest in law and locality.
Lawrence Liang is an advocate and the co-founder of the Bangalore Alternative Law Forum