Tipu Sultan is in the news again. For some years now, the BJP in Karnataka has made it an annual ritual to generate a heatwave against him in the rather pleasant winter month of November. This time, there is an extra force to it because the BJP is in power, and the crown sits uneasily on chief minister BS Yediyurappa’s head. The wave is calibrating itself to the fever pitch of elections that may unsuspectingly visit the shores of the state. Therefore, the BJP government is threatening to remove the 18th century Mysore king from textbooks.
Tipu Sultan, like many other historical figures, displaced in time, detached from the context and cartographic lines of the past to suit the wretchedness of today, appears a controversial figure. To retrace this narrative of contestation is tiring and repetitive. The one thing that needs to be emphasised is that the deliberate propaganda unleashed by the officers and quasi-historians of the East India Company against Tipu has persisted for over 200 years. There are missteps of nationalist history, of course, but propaganda has played an unfair role in deepening the ambiguity of his personality.
In The Anarchy (2019), William Dalrymple writes: “In a process of vilification familiar from more recent Western confrontations with assertive Muslim leaders, Wellesley [the Governor-General who provoked the last war against Tipu in 1799] now stepped up his propaganda against Tipu, who he depicted as ‘a cruel and relentless enemy’, ‘a beast of the jungle’, an ‘intolerant bigot’ with a ‘rooted hatred of Europeans’ who had ‘perpetually on his tongue the projects of jihad’. This tyrant was also deemed to be an ‘oppressive and unjust ruler… a ‘sanguinary tyrant, a perfidious negociator’, and above all, a ‘furious fanatic’.” Now we know where the adjectives and abuse of today are mostly borrowed from.
Tipu did have severe flaws. He used excessive violence even by the standards of his time, but only against his adversaries and those he defeated, not his subjects: “Allied to this often counter-productive aggression and megalomania was a fatal lack of diplomatic skills,” writes Dalrymple. But the day after his death, the British were surprised to discover how much his people “both Hindu and Muslim clearly loved him, just as they had been surprised to see how prosperous his kingdom was,” notes Dalrymple.
We know how the English viewed Tipu, but a fascinating exercise would be to look at how he viewed himself, or what he wrote about himself, and through that gauge the sensitivity and complexity of his mind, and its perennially embattled existence. He didn’t write an autobiography, or keep a war journal, but left behind a “register” of 37 dreams in Persian: “The dreams I have had and am having are being written in this register.” It was discovered in the bed chamber of the Sultan after the fall of Srirangapatnam in May 1799. Habibullah, the munshi of Tipu, is said to have been present when it was discovered by one Colonel Kirkpatrick. The sultan “always manifested peculiar anxiety to hide it from the view of any who happened to approach while he was either reading or writing it,” Mahmud Husain, the translator of the dream register, quotes a British source in his introduction.
In fact, in Girish Karnad’s Kannada play Tipu Sultan Kanda Kanasu (The Dreams of Tipu Sultan, 1997) Kirmani, the narrator, is angered that Habibullah did not destroy the dream register: “That idiot instead of throwing it to the fire handed it over to the English. It had the imprint of the Sultan’s soul,” he laments. The register was in 1800 gifted to Hugh Inglis, the chairman of the East India Company, by — who else but — Wellesley.
There is, perhaps, no other ruler in the world who ever thought he should keep a secret compendium of his subconscious. Why Tipu Sultan did it is a question that can generate many exegeses. The objects and scenes in his dreams may signify one thing to a psychoanalyst and transform themselves into glowing metaphors for a poet. However, an indisputable consensus would be that Tipu Sultan had a singular approach to his inner and outer life. They were also seamless in some ways. Karnad’s Tipu slips in a sheet with his very last dream to Kirmani, before he jumps into his final battle. Perhaps, a symbolic way of saying he ended the secrecy of his private indulgence, and also ended the spell of dreams with death.
Anyway, Tipu, in his dreams, was always the chosen one, generously blessed and divinely ordained to rule. The images of old, holy men with white beards serenade his dreams and give him special gifts. In Dream 8, besides “sugar-candy”, he receives a copy of the holy Quran: “Both the holy persons said to me that this copy had been written by several saints and calligraphists and that Hadrat Bandah-nawaz used to recite constantly from this copy.” In Dream 31: “I saw Hadrat Muhammad, the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him), bestowing upon me a green turban and asking me to bind it on my head.” He goes on to interpret this dream: “God almighty and Our Prophet have conferred the empire of the seven climes upon me.” In Dream 37, the last one, a holy man pointing to the boy who was the sultan said: “Daimun, qaimun and qaimun, daimun,” meaning his reign would be “durable and perpetual”. It is not just god and holy men; in Dream 9, even the Chinese emperor sends him a white elephant, 4,000 years after he had sent a similar gift to Alexander.
How Tipu characterises his enemies in his dreams, primarily a triangle of three (the British, the Marhattas or Marathas and the Nizam of Hyderabad), also tells a good deal about him. His father Hyder Ali had a triple alliance with the Marathas and the Nizam to keep the English away, but Nana Phadnavis is persuaded by Cornwallis to break the agreement, which first leads to Tipu losing half his kingdom in 1792, and eventually to his death in 1799.
The opening dream is itself about killing three officers of the Maratha army. But deeper contempt towards the Marathas is expressed in Dream 8. He sees a handsome young man: “Shortly thereafter the youth rose, and walking a few paces returned to loosen his hair from beneath his turban, and opening the fastenings of his robe, displayed his bosom, and I saw it was a woman.” In his waking hour, he tried to make sense of the dream: “Those Marhattas have put on the clothes of men, but in fact will prove to be women”.
The Nizam is termed a kafir (infidel, unbeliever) by Tipu in Dream 28. According to him, those who sided with the kafirs was a kafir, and the kafirs were the British. All through the register the English are referred to as either “Nazarenes”, meaning Christians, or “unbelievers” or “irreligious”. But, in Dream 26, Raghunath Rao, the Maratha agent is depicted addressing them as “the English”. When Tipu switches to his own voice he says: “If God wills, the Nazarenes will be expelled from India.” The distinction is very clear. This becomes more apparent when he refers to the French without a hint of abuse: “A Frenchman of standing had arrived… I rose and embraced him”. Where his sympathies lie were unclouded even in his dream sequences.
In his play, Karnad creates a new dream, in which an embattled Tipu is speaking to his father, Hyder Ali, who appears without limbs. A shocked Tipu asks: “Abba jaan, what happened?” The voice responds by saying “you have done this to me”. The father discusses the son’s failures in battle strategy. He accuses him of becoming a better scholar than a soldier. The play brilliantly mixes Tipu’s stupendous visions in his waking hours and those from his sleep.
There may be delicious irony in the fact that this play of Karnad was commissioned by the BBC, a venerable British institution, in 1997, in the golden jubilee year of India’s Independence. He fought the British, but was not a freedom fighter.
This article appeared in the print edition with the headline ‘The battles in the mind’