The question of Tipu Sultan is a brand new product in the booming market of fraught cultural ideas. The consequences have been tragic: One life has been lost in the ensuing fracas and two death threats have been received. Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, whose party makes a show of decrying communal agendas in national politics, was ill-advised to open this particular front. It is bad enough that obscure and emotive questions about culture and culinary habits have commandeered the national political discourse. Now, a Congress state government’s eagerness to celebrate the birth anniversary of Tipu Sultan has opened the door to yet more avoidable controversies.
The race memory of India teems with historical and semi-mythical figures who are revered by certain groups. It is not the business of governments to celebrate them. They are too numerous, and their votaries are doing quite a good job already. Besides, certain groups are bound to be inimical to them, since history accommodates both victors and the vanquished. Like the people of Kodagu district, in which Madikeri lies, who have had mixed feelings about the line of Hyder Ali. Governments should have the sense to stay clear of such contested arenas. But from the violent debate over whether the Tiger of Mysore was communal or a patriot, to the recalibration of Jawaharlal Nehru’s agency in nation-building, governments and parties are embroiled at the Central and state levels, across party lines. The divisive politics of contested memories persists as they mine versions of the past for political gold.
Politics in a nation constitutionally committed to secularism is less concerned about who is secular and who is not today, and more about who was secular or bigoted in the past. Such questions will always remain open, since history is eternally a work in progress, whose authorised version changes according to available data. This is how it should be, for the record of the past is not absolute, but a fine balance struck between countervailing narratives. But these accounts must be based on verifiable fact rather than prejudice or political slant, and the debate should be left to historians with professional rigour who can stand up to the scrutiny of their peers, not to antiquarians, enthusiasts and rabble-rousers who cannot distinguish between conviction and reality. An unwillingness to contain divisive politics has marred the image and prospects of the Narendra Modi government, both domestically and overseas, and now Congress-ruled Karnataka provides fresh cause for alarm. Even as India’s people show a commitment to the future, politics is rediscovering that the past is a great prize to fight over.