Tipu Sultan FatEh Ali Khan confronted the forces of the British East India Company and was eventually killed in the battle of Srirangapatna on May 4, 1799. Since his death, his historical persona has undergone numerous interpretations and the various assessments of his character and policy have been sharply polarised. His British contemporaries and adversaries saw him as a fanatical tyrant while the postcolonial historians of India and their counterparts in the West provide a radically opposite profile of the man: An enlightened champion of freedom, a progressive and a nationalist fighter far in advance of his time. These scholars debunk all contemporary accounts as biased, imperialistic or racist and, thus, unreliable. This article seeks to provide a balanced, reasonable, and realistic evaluation of Tipu Sultan, the man and the statesman.
Postcolonial scholarship seeks to present the sultan as a brave nationalist hero whose multiple projects of modernisation and militarisation of his region posed a deadly challenge to the British imperialists, but who fell victim to the grand alliance forged by the British East India Company with Mysore’s adversaries, the Nizam of Hyderabad and the Maratha Confederacy of west-central Mughal India. The imperialist history of the Anglo-Mysore confrontation constructed a demonology in which Tipu was portrayed as an oriental despot. Hence, all our hitherto understanding of Tipu Sultan as a bigot and despot has been biased and the academically beleaguered Indian must be seen in a new light, liberated from the vicious straitjacket of colonial history.
Tipu’s encounter with the foreigners reveals that he was not against their presence in his domain; he actually wanted them to comply with his commands. He was willing to take the help of foreign powers such as the Turks, Afghans and the French in order to expel the one he hated. He hated the British not because they were foreigners but because they were kafirs.
Tipu’s measures and policies, interpreted as modern and wholesome, were meant to maintain his theocracy or khudadad sarkar, and even his military organisation bore religious titles such as ilahi and ahmadi. His administrative financial organisation rendered his khudadad sarkar an extractive government dedicated primarily to military development. In fact, Tipu’s Mysore was “the most simple and despotic monarchy in the world”.
Joseph Michaud writes that Tipu wanted his government to do his bidding without demur or dissent. Even his close friends had to adjust their opinion to his caprices. Yet, he could not command their wholesale loyalty as they had no sense of national honour and were accustomed to switch loyalty to anyone promising a better prospect.
Tipu Sultan’s sovereign consciousness was intimately connected with religion. He issued coins proclaiming the primacy of Islam. Mir Hussein Kirmani points to the sultan’s antipathy towards the Hindus in his order to execute some 5,000 of them at Calicut. Tipu commanded Mir Zainul Abedin to slaughter or imprison the inhabitants of Coorg, and then convert both the survivors and the deceased. His merciless massacre of the Hindus and Christians in Malabar has been graphically described by the Portuguese traveller Fra Bartolemaco. His ceremonial sword bears an inscription: “lightning for the destruction of the unbelievers”. Tipu destroyed three Hindu temples at Harihar, Srirangapatna and Hospet. In the Tamil land and Malabar, he became known as a Brahmin-killer and a despoiler of Hindu temples.
Tipu’s appointment of the Hindus to positions of trust and responsibility does not seem to follow any principle other than common sense or sheer necessity. Admittedly, the sultan sought blessings from the Guru of the Sringeri Math and asked him to deliver a letter to the Marathas soliciting their alliance.
Similarly, Tipu’s correspondence with the guru and the performance of elephant sacrifice on May 4, 1799 were inspired by the foreboding of doom and his desperate attempt to avert it.
With all his shortcomings, Tipu, for a brief period of time, made his formidable presence felt in the declining days of the Mughal Empire. As Thomas Munro acknowledged, Tipu “possessed an energy of character unknown to eastern princes”. “He may have fallen short in wisdom and foresight,” concludes Dennys Forrest, “but never in courage, never in aspirations, never in his dream of a united, an independent, a prosperous Mysore.”
The writer is professor emeritus of history, Western Oregon University