October 2, 2006 11:20:05 pm
Not much ingenuity is required to grasp the divisive political agenda that prompted D H Shankaramurthy, Karnataka Minister for Higher (!) Education, to declare recently that all references to Tipu Sultan should be deleted from school textbooks since Tipu was ‘anti-Kannada’. The minister, a senior state-level BJP leader, reportedly stated that ‘glorifying Tipu’s achievements in school textbooks was not in the interest of students’. Tipu’s use of the Persian language for administrative purposes, supposedly in preference to Kannada, rendered the ruler ineligible as a subject of historical study.
This rather crude articulation of what amounts to a project for the communalization of the history of late 19th-century south India was put forth at a function organized by the Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti. The Samiti has been spearheading a campaign against NCERT textbooks, as a continuation of the endeavours by Murli Manohar Joshi and J S Rajput to incorporate in textbooks a version of history that was acceptable to the Sangh Parivar.
The attempt to make Tipu Sultan part of a communal discourse is not new. It may be recalled that a virulent campaign was launched in 1989 against the screening of Sanjay Khan’s TV serial Sword of Tipu Sultan, based on Bhagwan Gidwani’s book of the same title. The opposition to Tipu was at that time in terms of his having acted as a cruel and fanatical anti-Hindu ruler during the course of his invasion of Malabar. The main source used for substantiating such an assessment of Tipu was the well-known Malabar Manual (1887) compiled by William Logan, a British official posted in Malabar.
This is not to suggest that the excesses of rulers, or the ruthlessness and violence that they often resort to in situations of war and conflict, should be glossed over by historians. However, history-writing involves questioning one’s sources. Shankaramurthy seems to have relied on the Mysore Gazetteers, not a particularly accurate source on Tipu given that the Gazetteers sought to legitimize not just British rule but also the ruling family of Mysore (the Wodeyars) for whom Haidar Ali and Tipu were usurpers. Following the final defeat of Tipu in 1799 the Company had bestowed recognition on the Wodeyars as the ruling family of a much-truncated Mysore. Incidentally, the Karnataka minister too referred to Tipu as a usurper, one more reason for erasing his memory.
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The minister’s remarks raise the very serious question of whether the state can or should intervene to obliterate an entire era of the history of a people to promote a distorted and narrowly sectarian view of the past. Perhaps Napoleon should then find no place in Russian or British history textbooks. The point is that history as a discipline cannot be at the mercy of narrow parochial concerns. What the minister is in fact suggesting is that students should not be equipped to handle that vital tool of the discipline of history: critical enquiry. It is this tool that would allow the student to look at Tipu Sultan, or for that matter any other historical figure, in a critical manner and thereby make a nuanced historical assessment.
The first lesson that any serious practitioner of the discipline of history learns is that events and persons can be studied meaningfully only when placed in a historical context. The same with any discussion on Tipu’s approach to language. To begin with Tipu cannot be seen as the ruler of ‘Karnataka’, since Karnataka as a linguistic state is a modern creation and the product of a process of evolution in which Tipu’s kingdom marked a specific historical stage. The boundaries of Tipu’s kingdom encompassed parts of present-day Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Goa, indicating that he ruled over a multi-lingual territory. In any case linguistic identities developed during the course of the national movement and were linked, among other things, to the standardisation of vernaculars through education and printing. Prior to this, the language of governance and/or religion differed from the language of everyday speech. The Scindias and Holkars used Marathi and Persian in their official documents though these were not the languages of the common people of Malwa. Finally, the extensive use of Kannada by Tipu for official purposes is well-documented.
Ultimately what is being targetted is Tipu as an icon of the anti-colonial struggle. Tipu’s place in history has to be judged primarily in terms of the prolonged contest between Mysore and the East India Company. The Company had to engage in four Anglo-Mysore wars, from 1766-1799, to subjugate Mysore. The relentless struggle of Haidar Ali and Tipu against the Company assumed epic proportions due to Mysore’s ability to mobilise military resources on a scale that made it a real contest. Tipu’s modernization of the army, the adoption of advances in technology and the skilful deployment of rockets forced the British to update their own military organisation involving massive financial commitment. Tipu’s defeat paved the way for the subjugation of the Marathas, and ensured the supremacy of the Company by the beginning of the 19th century.
In popular memory Tipu has remained a prominent symbol of the struggle against colonial rule. When, shortly after the battle of Srirangapatnam, Indian soldiers of the Company’s army stationed at Vellore revolted in 1806, they were obviously inspired by Tipu. They raised Tipu’s flag, with its tiger emblem, and declared one of his sons (who was imprisoned in the Vellore Fort) as the legitimate ruler. For several generations Tipu’s tiger has remained one of the most enduring images of the challenge to colonial domination, and it is this image that is now threatened by the attempt to selectively sanction approved symbols of the nation with a view to exclude rather than to include.
The writer is Reader, Department of History, Delhi University
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