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The competing narratives of Tipu: What they say, and why

Historical evidence on the life and times of Tipu Sultan is mixed, and his assessment has often been based on current perceptions, prejudices.

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Why is a late 18th century Mysore ruler at the centre of a polarising debate?

Last year, Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah announced that from now on, the state would officially celebrate the birth anniversary of Tipu Sultan, the “Tiger of Mysore”, on November 10 every year. A controversy followed, and the historical role of Tipu was debated among those who saw him as a bulwark against colonialism and a great son of Karnataka, and those who pointed to his destruction of temples and forced conversions of Hindus and Christians to accuse him of tyranny and fanaticism.

The disagreement flared up again as the planned celebration approached. The VHP began an agitation, and the BJP announced a boycott of the ceremony at the Karnataka Vidhana Soudha. On the other hand, Siddaramaiah insisted Tipu was a patriot and “true secularist”, and speaking at the Vidhana Soudha function, playwright and Jnanpith awardee Girish Karnad said Tipu would have been as revered in Karnataka as Shivaji was in Maharashtra if only he was Hindu. Karnad also said that Tipu was born in Devanahalli, where Bengaluru airport is located, and the airport should ideally be named after him.

On November 10, a 67-year-old VHP leader was killed after falling off a wall while trying to dodge bricks thrown by protesters in Kodagu. A day later, a Muslim man succumbed to a bullet injury he suffered apparently while participating in a pro-Tipu protest. Girish Karnad and Pratap Simha, the BJP MP from Mysuru who has been leading the protests against the Tipu celebrations, have received death threats online, allegedly from opposing camps in the quarrel.

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So, who was Tipu Sultan and when did he rule? What is he best known for?

Tipu Sultan was the son of Haider Ali, a professional soldier of humble origins who started out as a junior officer in the army of the Wodeyar king of Mysore, and rose rapidly to ultimately take power in 1761.

Tipu was born in 1750 and, as a 17-year-old, participated in the first Anglo-Mysore War. He subsequently fought against the Marathas, and in the Second Anglo-Mysore War of 1780-84. Haider died while the war was on, and Tipu succeeded him in 1782. The war ended with the Treaty of Mangalore, at which Tipu had the upper hand.


In India’s wider national narrative, Tipu is a man of imagination and courage, a brilliant military strategist who, in a short reign of 17 years, mounted the most serious challenge that the English East India Company faced in India. He engaged Company forces in four rounds of fighting during 1767-99, and gave Governors-General Cornwallis and Wellesley sleepless nights before finally being killed on the battlefield defending his capital Srirangapatnam in the Fourth Anglo-Mysore war. With Tipu gone, Wellesley imposed the humiliating Subsidiary Alliance on the reinstated Wodeyar king, reducing Mysore to a client state of the Company.

Tipu was a moderniser who reorganised his army along European lines, using new technology, including what is considered the first war rocket. He devised a comprehensive land revenue system based on a detailed survey and classification of land, in which the tax was imposed directly on the peasant, and collected through salaried agents in cash, widening the resource base of the state. He worked to modernise agriculture, giving tax breaks for developing wasteland, building new irrigation infrastructure and repairing old dams, and promoting agricultural manufacturing and sericulture. He sent ambassadors to Europe to learn technical knowhow, built a navy to support sea trade, and commissioned a “state commercial corporation” to set up factories outside Mysore. Mysore started trade in sandalwood, silk, spices, rice and sulphur, and ultimately came to establish 30 trading outposts across Tipu’s dominions and even overseas.

Why is he then seen unfavourably?

As with nearly every historical figure, perspectives on Tipu differ. Both Haider and Tipu had strong territorial ambitions, and invaded and annexed territories outside Mysore. Haider annexed Malabar and Kozhikode, and then conquered Kodagu, Thrissur and Kochi. Tipu went to war with the English and Marathas, raided Kodagu and Kochi.


Not surprisingly, in these areas, the narrative of his reign is markedly different. In Kodagu, Mangaluru and Malabar, he is seen as a bloodthirsty tyrant, who burnt down entire towns and villages, razed hundreds of temples and churches, and forcibly converted Hindus. This narrative is sometimes backed by a historical record that has Tipu himself boasting about having forced “infidels” to convert to Islam, and destroyed their places of worship.

Is there any scope for the two opposing narratives to be reconciled?

Real or imagined differences between any two opposing historical narratives appear sharpened periodically — most commonly in the context of current political battles. The disagreement over Tipu is old, and has combusted every few years after ‘political’ provocation. The current escalation probably cannot be separated from the larger context of majoritarian muscle-flexing by Hindu extremists across the country.

Much of the criticism of Tipu is rooted in accounts of those he vanquished — and of colonial historians who had powerful reasons to demonise him. Tipu defeated the Company in wars, allied with the French to frustrate its attempts to control politics of the Deccan and Carnatic, and sought to challenge its vital trading interests. Tipu’s keenness to subjugate Kodagu was linked directly to his desire to control the port of Mangaluru, on whose path Kodagu fell. Tipu battled nearly all powers in the region, irrespective of the faith of his opponents. It is likely that his Islamic zeal had something to do with finding ideological ballast for relentless warring.

To argue, like Siddaramaiah, that Tipu was a nationalist patriot and secular, is futile. Neither nationalism nor secularism is a philosophy that existed in the 18th century. To read these modern concepts back in time is misleading and fallacious. If Tipu fought the British “only to save his kingdom”, so did every other pre-modern ruler in history.


If there is evidence that Tipu persecuted Hindus and Christians, there is enough evidence too of his patronage of Hindu temples and priests, and of handsome grants and gifts to them. His patronage of the Sringeri mutt and donations to temples at Nanjangud, Kanchi and Kalale are well documented.
Tipu was a multilayered personality who must not be seen through the prism of morality or religion. It is not necessary that he be judged either as a hero or as a tyrant.

How does the conflict fit into the politics of Karnataka today?


The Congress and socialists see Tipu as a nationalist figure because he fought the East India Company. His building of roads, a centralised administration, irrigation systems and a modern standing army is stressed to decommunalise his legacy. Championing Tipu as a “statesman” is in line with the Congress’s religion-neutral nationalist tradition.

The row over Girish Karnad’s suggestion on renaming Bengaluru airport reflects something different. The airport is named after Kempe Gowda, a chieftain revered by the Vokkaligas, the core base of the JD(S). The party has picked on Karnad’s remarks, and forced the CM to distance himself from them.


For the BJP and the Parivar, the Tipu controversy is an opportunity to push the political conversation to religious identities and force a polarisation. Siddaramiah, who has built a broad coalition of OBCs and minorities with reasonable success, now faces a challenge from Hindutva politics.

What happens now? How far can this disagreement go?

State Assembly elections are due only in 2018, but Siddaramaiah’s celebration of Tipu has given the opposition an issue to galvanise cadres and target the government.

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 — the old Mysore state’s narrative of him as a moderniser was unlikely to be acceptable only because it was now the official state narrative. The Marathas are an exception who found pan-Indian acceptability overcoming past narratives in regions they conquered. Karnad’s point that the evolution of the Marathas into pan-Indian icons was helped by the fact that they were Hindus, is significant.

In much of India, history continues to be seen through an ethnic, communal, regional or religious lens. There is every possibility, therefore, of the Tipu controversy being raked up again.

First published on: 16-11-2015 at 01:35:24 am
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