‘Fanatic’ or ‘freedom fighter’: The renewed debate on Tipu Sultan

The historical evidence on the ‘Tiger of Mysore’ can be read as competing narratives. As Assembly elections in Congress-ruled Karnataka approach, prejudices and political agenda-making have given rise to shrill disagreement

By: Express News Service | New Delhi | Updated: October 25, 2017 10:04 pm
tupi sultan, karnataka, tipu sultan jayanti celebrations, tipu sultan debate, tipu sultan news, karnataka minister, siddaramaiah, bjp, tiger of mysore, indian express The historical evidence on the ‘Tiger of Mysore’ can be read as competing narratives. As Assembly elections in Congress-ruled Karnataka approach, prejudices and political agenda-making have given rise to shrill disagreement

As the elections to the Karnataka Assembly approach, the controversy over Tipu Sultan and his role in India’s history has returned. BJP leaders have refused to attend the Tipu Sultan Jayanti celebrations on November 10, and party general secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya has declared that “Tipu Sultan’s place in history should be reconsidered”.

Karnataka CM Siddaramaiah has decried the fact that Tipu Jayanti is being made into a “political issue”. “There were four wars against the British and Tipu fought them all.”

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The Congress government has been celebrating the birth anniversary celebrations of the 18th century ruler of Mysore since 2015. The BJP has opposed it strongly, and in violence in Kodagu district two years ago, two people, including a VHP activist, were killed.

What is the mainstream narrative on Tipu Sultan?

Tipu was the son of Haider Ali, a professional soldier who climbed the ranks in the army of the Wodeyar king of Mysore, and ultimately took power in 1761. He was born in 1750 and, as a 17-year-old, fought in the first Anglo-Mysore War (1767-69) and subsequently, against the Marathas and in the Second Anglo-Mysore War (1780-84). Haider died while this war was on, and Tipu succeeded him in 1782.

In the wider national narrative, Tipu has so far been seen as a man of imagination and courage, a brilliant military strategist who, in a short reign of 17 years, mounted the most serious challenge the Company faced in India. He fought Company forces four times during 1767-99, and gave Governors-General Cornwallis and Wellesley bloody noses before he was killed defending his capital Srirangapatnam in the Fourth Anglo-Mysore War. With Tipu gone, Wellesley imposed the Subsidiary Alliance on the reinstated Wodeyar king, and Mysore became the Company’s client state. Also Read | The competing narratives of Tipu: What they say, and why

Tipu reorganised his army along European lines, using new technology, including what is considered the first war rocket. He devised a land revenue system based on detailed surveys and classification, in which the tax was imposed directly on the peasant, and collected through salaried agents in cash, widening the state’s resource base. He modernised agriculture, gave tax breaks for developing wasteland, built irrigation infrastructure and repaired old dams, and promoted agricultural manufacturing and sericulture. He built a navy to support trade, and commissioned a “state commercial corporation” to set up factories. As Mysore traded in sandalwood, silk, spices, rice and sulphur, some 30 trading outposts were established across Tipu’s dominions and overseas.

Is there a problem with this narrative?

On nearly every historical figure, perspectives differ. Haider and Tipu had strong territorial ambitions, and invaded and annexed territories outside Mysore. Haider annexed Malabar and Kozhikode, and conquered Kodagu, Thrissur and Kochi. Tipu raided Kodagu and Kochi. Not surprisingly, in Kodagu, Mangaluru and Malabar, Tipu is seen as a bloodthirsty tyrant who burnt down entire towns and villages, razed hundreds of temples and churches, and forcibly converted Hindus. The historical record has Tipu boasting about having forced “infidels” to convert to Islam, and of having destroyed their places of worship.

The disagreement then, is between those who see the “Tiger of Mysore” as a bulwark against colonialism and a great son of Karnataka, and those who point to his destruction of temples and forced conversions of Hindus and Christians to accuse him of tyranny and fanaticism.

Is there a way to reconcile these two opposing narratives?

In the accounts of those he vanquished, and of colonial historians who had reasons to demonise him, Tipu is the villain. He defeated the Company in wars, allied with the French to frustrate its attempts to control the politics of the Deccan and Carnatic, and challenged its vital trading interests. He was keen to subjugate Kodagu because it lay on the road from Mysore to Mangaluru, the port that Tipu wanted to control. He battled nearly all powers in the region, irrespective of their faith. It is likely that looked for ideological ballast for his relentless warring in shows of Islamic zeal.

To argue, like Siddaramaiah, that Tipu was a nationalist patriot and secular, is misleading. Back in the 18th century, there was no “nationalism” or “secularism”. These are modern concepts that cannot be read back in time. But it is also misleading to argue that if Tipu fought the British, it was “only to save his kingdom” — because so did every other pre-modern ruler, in India and elsewhere.

There is evidence that Tipu persecuted Hindus and Christians, but there is also evidence that he patronised Hindu temples and priests, and gave them grants and gifts. He donated to temples at Nanjangud, Kanchi and Kalale, and patronised the Sringeri mutt.

When linguistic states were formed in the 1950s, many regions that read their historical past differently were merged under a common linguistic identity. Kodagu, now part of Karnataka, has always seen Tipu as an invader, and the old Mysore state’s narrative of him as a moderniser would not be acceptable to Kodagu only because it is now the official state narrative.

It serves no purpose to view Tipu’s multilayered personality through the prism of morality or religion; it is not necessary that he be judged only in terms of either a hero or a tyrant.

How does the conflict of perceptions link with politics in Karnataka today?

The Congress and socialists have seen Tipu as a “nationalist” because he fought the British. The roads, modern standing army, and systems of administration and irrigation that he built, have been stressed to decommunalise his legacy. Championing Tipu as a “statesman” is in line with the Congress’s religion-neutral nationalist tradition.
For the BJP and the Parivar, the Tipu controversy is an opportunity to push political conversation towards religious identities, and to force a polarisation. As the election approaches, the BJP would be keen to build a broad ‘Hindu’ platform against Siddaramaiah’s coalition of OBCs and minorities.

What will happen as the polls approach?

BJP leaders have said the Tipu Jayanti celebrations are “a deliberate attempt to stoke communal tensions” and “a blatant attempt at vote bank politics”. Opposing historical narratives have frequently been used as ammunition in political battles — a tendency that has quickened alongside calls for “rewriting” Indian history in a “nationalist” mould. The disagreement over Tipu is old, and has been brought alive every few years by political provocation. In much of India, history is seen through an ethnic, communal, regional or religious lens. As both BJP and Congress push their political agendas aggressively as the election approaches, the controversy will likely be raked up repeatedly.

(This is an updated version of an article by Amrith Lal and Monojit Majumdar that appeared in the edition of November 16, 2015)

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