The Mysore ruler of the 18th century, Tipu Sultan, is the latest in a long line of kings, who might face the ignominy of being removed from history textbooks. Karnataka Chief Minister BS Yediyurappa who had cancelled state celebrations of the leader’s birth anniversary — started by the Congress government in 2014 and scheduled to be held in November this year — said they were considering dropping the information on the Sultan, entirely. The provocation appears to be a letter from Virajpet BJP MLA KG Bopaiah to the Kannada and Culture department, where he stated the festivities created communal disharmony (Tipu Jayanti celebrations in 2015 were marred by clashes on communal lines).
It is a cliche to say history is written by the victorious but like all cliches, it originates from some place of truth. What we know of what happened 200 years ago is unlikely to have been hardcore fact but interpretation, influenced largely by the political leaders in control at the time. Basically, those in power have an interest in keeping it — the best way to hang on to it is to shape the narrative of the past in a way to suit the present atmosphere. There can be no doubt, playing up that aspect of Tipu, of a bloodthirsty tyrant who boasted about converting infidels to Islam, suits the current establishment’s political objectives. To be fair, all governments in India over the last 70 years have used their position of power to achieve their selfish ends, or to perpetuate their own myth. It explains how more than 450 different government schemes, hundreds of public institutions, tens of roads and airports are named after members of the Nehru-Gandhi family. It took an RTI in 2013 for the Election Commission to advise the government to put an end to this practice.
It’s unclear whether it’s a problem peculiar to modern India, this tendency to portray erstwhile leaders and the founding fathers of the nation as faultless, perfect individuals in textbooks. (Or ignore them entirely.) As though they couldn’t have been multilayered politicians who had both, some hits and misses. Contrarily, ancient Indian texts seem to abhor the idea of a single truth. For example, nearly every main character in the Mahabharata is hopelessly flawed. Yudhisthira recklessly loses his wife in a game of dice while Arjuna was unabashedly proud of his skills as an archer. This is implied by his collapsing right at the edge of heaven in the last paragraph—pride comes before a fall. The two epics of ancient India combine history and metaphor to portray how people are impossibly complex and unpredictable and so, one would imagine this would be a nation psychologically at ease with relative truths. However, growing up the only version of the legend of Tipu Sultan we heard was that he was a courageous soldier, unfazed by the might of the East India Company.
I’m not sure what the better option for a student is, having to absorb this romanticised fairytale of bravery and courage, or be suddenly faced only with examples of his ruthless cruelty. The worst option of all though, is to erase Tipu Sultan, depriving students of the most essential learning from history, that there is a connection between everything. Every seemingly insignificant (turbulent) event, however long ago, contributed to reaching the inevitable juncture we are at now. Going through my son’s 10th standard NCERT history text book earlier this year was a depressing revelation on how pre Independence mass movements are taught. Chapter after chapter of cheesy, unconvincing tripe about great freedom fighters rising like Batman against the evil British, while there was barely a reference to violent caste oppression, the shameful scourge of India. Young Indians need to know how their ancestors lived, to make sense of newspaper headlines like the heartbreaking murder of two Dalit children in Shivpuri recently. All aspects of Tipu Sultan’s reign, bloody and not, deserve to be told, if only to make the point that the past can never be conveniently synthesized into one, single story.
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