For many years, I researched, thought and wrote about the historical figure of Tipu Sultan. As a professional historian, I did so in an objective and disinterested manner — this is the nature of scholarship. So I am saddened to read that this 18th-century ruler is, once again, the focus of controversy. And it is this we must remember: Tipu Sultan, who inherited his suzerainty of the kingdom of Mysore from his adventurer father, Hyder Ali, lived and died during a time very different from our own.
Following Aurangzeb’s death in 1707, the Mughal empire slid into decline, a fragmentation that allowed the rise of “successor states”, the best known being Awadh, Bengal and Hyderabad. This decline allowed European trading companies to establish footholds on the subcontinent. In other words, wherever there was a power vacuum, ambitious men seized the opportunity to fill it. In the south, one of those ambitious men was Hyder Ali.
When Hyder died at the end of 1782, Tipu succeeded him. Both men were capable warriors and chiefs, but Hyder had ensured that his son receive the education he had not. When Tipu came to the throne, then, he was prepared to take on the mantle of king.
For him, this meant holding on to the territories that Hyder had captured and consolidating his position in relation to neighbouring powers; by the 1780s, this was primarily the British in Madras, the nizam of Hyderabad, and the Marathas under the figurehead of the peshwa. Smaller realms either subdued or caught in the orbit of Hyder’s Mysore were Travancore, Kodagu, Cochin and a number of other Malabar chiefdoms.
The early years of any new king’s reign was the period when he was at his most vulnerable, a time when his strength would be tested by anyone with a grievance, or who wished to break free from his control. If these challenges were not met swiftly and decisively, a ruler’s hold on power could quickly erode. The tactics adopted to deal with such rebels were what we would now refer to as “shock and awe”. Those on the receiving end of Tipu’s wrath were left in no doubt that he meant business. Executions, mass transportations from Kodagu and the Malabar coast, and forced conversions resulting in the loss of caste were all means of punishment, an example to others who might be contemplating rebellion. As brutal as these methods now seem, this was the nature of medieval and early-modern kingship. Tipu was acting within accepted norms of statecraft that had existed on the subcontinent for centuries.
If asked, Tipu would undoubtedly have described himself as a just king who ruled with a strong hand. He undertook administrative reforms, made donations to religious institutions, including temples, arbitrated in disputes and cared for the welfare of his subjects. The Sri Ranganatha Swami temple, situated near Tipu’s palace on the island of Srirangapatna, continued to flourish. The Sringeri Math was another recipient of his patronage. All these gifts and many more are documented and cannot be denied. Again, the rationale behind these displays of “conspicuous piety” was rooted in accepted notions of kingship: The relationship between kings and the divine was a close one and expressed through such acts; in return, prayers would be offered for the peace and prosperity of the realm.
So why, then, if Tipu was behaving no differently from any other Indian king, has he become such a controversial figure? Why is he regarded as a tyrant by some and as a hero or martyr by others? For that, we can lay the blame on his killers, the British.
What distinguished Hyder and Tipu from their contemporaries was their suspicion of Europeans and their refusal to
allow a British political agent to be placed at their court. They allied with the French because they were enemies of the British and were a useful source of European manufactures and weaponry — like many powers of their time, they adopted European military techniques, recognising their effectiveness. Writing to the Hyderabad chief minister in 1796, Tipu had emphasised the increasing threat posed by British inroads on the subcontinent.
Not surprisingly, therefore, the British regarded Tipu as a major obstacle to the continuing peaceful conduct of their trading interests. That, combined with Tipu’s ongoing communications with the French and other local powers as he attempted to shore up allies, as well as the arrival in Calcutta in 1798 of a new and belligerent governor general, the earl of Mornington, brought about his demise.
Tipu’s death triggered a debate in Britain about whether Mornington’s actions had been legitimate. This in turn led to efforts by the governor general and his supporters — often in print — to justify the attack on Mysore. They did this by portraying Tipu as a murderous tyrant and oppressor of his people. The proponents of this image used the language of the day, including references to Hyder and Tipu as “Muhammadans”, a term that, in Europe, as a result of the historical conflict between Islam and Christendom that began with the Crusades, was freighted with hostile intent. This is how myth-making begins: The needs of the time shape the character of the myth. Over the 19th and 20th centuries, as the needs evolved in response to colonialism, Tipu became known as the first nationalist and a Muslim martyr. And like myth, memory too is fluid and unreliable — which is why historians always rely on documentary evidence and not hearsay.
Brittlebank is author, among others, of ‘Tipu Sultan’s Search for Legitimacy: Islam and Kingship in a Hindu Domain’