In the last part of the Tipu trail we travel to coastal Karnataka where Tipu is not the hero he is in Seringapatanam. It’s been two centuries since the Sultan used the coast to take on the British fleets, but in the process he was brutal towards the local Christians. Will that be a factor when they line up to vote tomorrow? Here is our ground report from Mangalore.
Stretching proudly across the western belt of India, the turbulent waters of the Arabian sea have for centuries carried within them stories of aspirations, power and violence. As it flows by the coast of Karnataka, it quietly whispers memories of a time when the erstwhile ruler of Mysore valiantly fought to defend its shores from the onslaught of the British. Right across, where the ocean merges with river Falguni, stands sturdy a watch tower constructed in 1784 that bears testimony to Tipu Sultan’s desire to keep out English warships from entering Mangalore, the chief port city of Karnataka. The Sultan Battery, as the Mangaloreans call it, carries a darker side to its past as well. It is believed that 25 churches were demolished, and their bricks used to put together the structure. As the churches fell, Tipu’s hand came down strongly upon a significant population of Roman Catholics that had made Western Karnataka their home.
“I have heard that Tipu Sultan had some magic powers. With one stroke of his sword he killed everyone,” says Monish who works in a ferry outside the Sultan Battery. Back in the sixteenth century, a large population of Roman Catholics along with a significant Hindu population had migrated into the western coast of Karnataka from Goa. The Konkani Christians, who are known as the Kanara Christians in coastal Karnataka, were desperate to escape the Portuguese inquisition. In a matter of two centuries, however, they came into direct conflict with Tipu Sultan. Memories of that haunting past is something that the community has held on to, and yet kept quietly hidden within their hearts.
When the Siddaramaiah-led Congress government announced the celebration of Tipu Sultan in 2015, the small community that constitutes about 9 to 10 per cent of Karnataka’s population had silently protested at the thought of their ‘enemy’ being celebrated. Mangalore is part of the Dakshin Kannada district which consists of eight Assembly constituencies. Seven out of the eight currently have a Congress sitting MLA. There are three constituencies within Mangalore, all of which are currently held by the Congress. Historically, the Kanara Christians community has been known to have supported the Congress since independence. Whether the controversy over the Tiger of Mysore will shake their loyalty in the upcoming elections is hard to tell.
What Tipu Sultan means to the Kanara Christians
“We, the Konkani speaking Christian community of coastal Karnataka, have a history of 500 years. In these 500 years, the biggest carnage was carried out by Tipu Sultan. He was our worst enemy,” says social activist Robert Rosario. Historians believe that when Tipu Sultan came to occupy the throne of Mysore, the Kanara Christian community, numbering close to 80,000 then, were a significant population in the region. “Tipu Sultan appears to have confiscated their properties and transported about 20,000 of them to Mysore, while many others found refuge in the neighbouring territories or in the mountains to escape persecution,” writes historian J.B.P.More in his work, “Tipu Sultan and the Christians.”
More goes on to add that Tipu tried to convert them all by threat of death. So brutal was the treatment of the sultan towards them that by the time Tipu died, the community was reduced to a mere 10,000. Memories of Tipu’s ruthlessness are deeply entrenched into the hearts and minds of the Konkani speaking Christian community in Karnataka. They often manifest themselves in the form of stories or myths they have passed down through generations. “There are stories of Tipu Sultan feeding Catholics to tigers,” says Alban Menezes who is part of the United Christians Association in Mangalore. He adds that it is believed that the Netravati river that runs through Karnataka gets its name from the idea that its waters ran red due to the massacre carried out by Tipu Sultan.
Tipu’s motive in coming down upon the Hindus and Christians of the region have been debated among historians for decades. Many believe that it was part of the political traditions of the times and did not have anything to do with religion. “Tipu’s encounters and dealings with the Christians of both European and Indian origin were in accordance with the spirit of his times and also had a political dimension. He did nothing more than the Portuguese, the French, the English and the Marathas did or had done,” writes More. The biggest grievance that the sultan is believed to have had against the Christians is that they plotted against him with the British. To teach them a lesson, the Tiger carried out a bloodbath of the kind that the churches of coastal Karnataka have not been able to forget till date.
Interestingly though, despite the deep rooted hurt that the Kanara Christians feel against Tipu, they have all these years, kept it neatly hidden, both from the non-Christian communities of Karnataka at large, and from their own political opinions and actions. “This is such an old story. So much of bloodshed has happened in the past. If we bring up these things over and again then how can we live? We need to forgive and forget,” says Fr. J B Castra of Rosario church which is believed to be one of the 25 churches demolished by Tipu. When asked about the opposition of the community towards Tipu jayanti, real estate agent Vincent says, “we have never protested against it. I think it is false news.”
“Christians are opposed to this celebration, but they don’t come forward and express themselves. Only Hindus express against the issue, but Christians don’t,” says Madhukar who works as an electrician. “Christians did feel hurt, but that does not mean we don’t support a government celebrating him. That would be unnecessarily beating ourselves,” says a Catholic resident who wishes to be anonymous.
Many others, however, are not even aware of how the community feels about Tipu Sultan. “Christians have always been known to be Congress supporters. I had no idea they were against this Tipu jayanti celebration,” says mechanical engineer Ashwin Pai.
Will Tipu Sultan impact voting?
“The Catholic community has always stood by the government. So we were a bit sad and even angry when this Tipu jayanti was announced,” says 23-year-old airline employee Vishal D’souza. He added that despite feeling hurt, they have not protested and will stand by the Congress. Alban Menezes explains that most Catholics won’t protest against the Congress because they are themselves not aware of the history related to Tipu Sultan.
But the inclination to lean towards the Congress also appears to be a product of a more recent incident in the past when in 2008 Christians in southern Karnataka, and particularly in Mangalore, were attacked by Hindu right wing organisations. Memories of the incident are fresh in the minds of the Kanara Christians, and definitely higher in priority when it comes to the voting decisions. “The Congress is definitely lesser of the two evils. It is a well known fact that a lot of incidents related to communal disharmony happens when the BJP is in power. They do not happen when the Congress is in power and even if they do, they are quickly managed,” says Vijay Monteira, a medical student.
For a number of voters, regardless of religion, support for the Congress also stems from the work the government has done in terms of welfare measures and also the measures taken by the local MLAs. “Congress has done good work. Poor people have benefitted. Although the middle classes also make use of these benefits, the local MLAs are doing their job,” says Vatsala who works at a Cyber cafe in South Mangalore. “The MLA here, J R Lobo, has done fabulous development wok in the last five years, particularly when it comes to roads and water,” says Vincent. “Since the time of Nehru and Indira Gandhi, Congress has been doing great work. Subsidies given by them have been useful to the mosques, churches and temples,” says Zubair who is one of the imams at Idgah masjid.
Support for the BJP, however, is not absent either. “The government needs to look after Hindus, Muslims and Christians in an equal manner. Congress supports the Muslims alone and majority of the subsidies are also given to them,” says Ravi Gujran who is into the fisheries business. He asks: “Tipu Sultan converted so many Hindus, raped and killed so many people, yet why does the government want to celebrate his jayanti?” “I will vote for the BJP mainly because of Modi. Congress indulges in too much minority appeasement,” says Ashwin Pai. “The BJP needs to come to power to balance out things. Congress is too much into Muslim appeasement,” explains Rosario. “Now we have Congress, previously there was BJP, this time we will again vote for BJP,” says Gujaran adding that “the government needs to keep changing hands, otherwise they become arrogant.”