Well over two centuries after his death, erstwhile Mysore ruler Tipu Sultan is still repeatedly invoked by politicians as elections to Karnataka assembly approaches. There is much ambiguity about Tipu’s image, which varies from that of a nationalist to one of a Muslim persecutor of Hindus. Today, indianexpress.com is in Kodagu to understand how this important region in Karnataka feels about the issue and whether it will dictate how they vote this time.
The winding mountain roads of the Western Ghats skirted by lush rainforests on either side welcome you to Kodagu (Coorg) district of southwestern Karnataka. Rosewood, teak wood and silver oaks reach for the skies here and the extensive growth of coffee plantations maintains the economy of what is perhaps the least populous district in Karnataka. This is also the place where the revered river Kaveri takes birth. It is believed that she raises her head for a brief moment, only to disappear and come alive again some 8 kms downhill at a place called Bhagamandala. Here the Bhagandeshwara temple was built in 1790 by the local king to honour the reappearance of the Kaveri and its merger with two other rivers. But a more disturbing history haunts the history of the temple. Locals believe that the temple had been attacked by Tipu Sultan, burnt down and the place renamed Afesalabad.
The memory of Tipu’s attack on the region rings through the hills of Coorg as residents point out to the statues of two elephants with mutilated trunks that stand in the temple, serving as testimony to a time when the local Kodava community were betrayed. “He did not just attack this place, but every other place in India where Hindus lived,” says sadashiv, one of the priests at the Bhagandeshwara temple.The Kodavas are an ethno-lingual tribe who consider themselves to be the original inhabitants of Kodagu. Reputed for a culture rooted in martial practices, the memory of their persecution under Tipu Sultan serves as a reminder of their loss of dignity. It is a wound that was yet to heal when the Karnataka government, in 2015, announced the celebration of their ‘enemy’ in the form of Tipu Jayanti.
The protests that followed the announcement in 2015 had led to the death of two in Madikeri. The quiet little hilly district was shaken up during those days. The impact of it is predicted to be felt in the upcoming elections. But a quick tour around the district reveals that while the controversy over the erstwhile Mysore ruler might determine voting patterns this time round, there are several other issues affecting this region which consists of just two constituencies — Madikeri and Virajpet, both with BJP MLAs over the past 15 years.
History of grievances
In recent years a diary entry by the French officer Francois Fidele Ripaud de Montaudevert surfaced, wherein he claims to tell the ‘true story of Tipu Sultan.’ “During the siege of Mangalore, Tipu’s soldiers daily exposed the heads of many innocent Brahmins within sight from the fort for the Zamorin and his Hindu followers to see,” he writes in the diary. While Tipu’s image of a religious bigot has been contested and debated over by historians over and again, for the Kodava community at Coorg, Montaudevert’s diary entry is something that has been part of their cultural memory for generations now. “There was a time when every other Kodava house would name their dog Tipu,” says retired army officer Colonel Subbaiah.
The sensitivity attached to Tipu Sultan is further aggravated by the fact that the Kodavas consider military practices to be in their ‘blood’. It is documented that the Kodavas were in large numbers part of the British army during the two World Wars. Military practices are part of the Kodava culture, so much so, that the Indian constitution allows them to possess arms without license. When a son is born in a Kodava family, it is customary for a gunshot to be made in the air. Similarly, when someone dies, two rounds are fired. The gun is so much a part of Kodava life that it even finds a place for itself in the temple of each household. “Tipu Sultan’s army could not take over the Kodavas the 21 times that he tried,” says Subbaiah. Kodagu, or Coorg is known to have been important for Tipu to capture so that it can form the gateway to the port city of Mangalore. When he was no longer able to put down the Kodavas, he is believed to have invited them for a parley over lunch at Devati Parambu and then deceived them.
Kodava local history suggests that Tipu killed several of them in Devati Parambu and then took close to 111,000 of them as prisoners to his fort at Srirangapatnam, where he forcibly converted them. Tipu’s massacre is entrenched deep into Kodava memory and their reaction to the state government’s announcement was extremely strong. “Tipu jayanti is a human rights violation. It has hurt Kodavas’ personal dignity. How can they celebrate the birthday of someone who has massacred so many people of our community?” says K.P. Manjunath who has filed two petitions to the Supreme Court, asking for a stay on Tipu jayanti celebration. “Coorg is part of Karnataka. It is from here that water is supplied to the state and we are the ones who grow commercial crops in the state. It is not fair to celebrate the birthday of someone who assassinated so many from our community. Tipu is not equal to Basavanna or Mahavira. They did not harm anybody,” says Bollahira Yamuna Aiyappa, a homemaker living in Madikeri.
The Muslim community living in Coorg is well aware of the sense of grievance that the Kodavas associate with Tipu Sultan and are rather empathetic with it as well. “We feel that he was a fine man, but people of Coorg say that he had tortured them,” says Najeeb, a coconut water seller in Gonikoppal. When asked if the state government was justified in celebrating Tipu jayanti, Najeep says that “Islam prohibits celebration of jayantis”. Najeeb’s views are echoed by Hussain who works as a tailor at Gonikoppal. “Tipu Sultan died some two hundred years back. What is the point in celebrating his birthday now,” he says.
Will history affect voting?
“This Tipu jayanti controversy will definitely affect Congress in the elections at Kodagu,” says Manjunath. He goes on to add that Congress has historically been unpopular in this district. “After independence, till 1956 Kodagu was a C-category state. Later it was merged with Karnataka. In that process of merger, Congress had played the main role. Even now many Kodavas want a separate state,” says Manjunath.
There are others, however, who are unhappy with the governance of the Congress government in the state. Vivek Povaiah, a coffee planter and trader based in Pollibetta in Virajpet Constituency, says the biggest threat facing the plantation economy in Coorg is that of labour. “Thanks to this government, everything is free for the labourers. They get rice, dal, kerosene free of cost. Why would they want to come and work in the estates?” he says. Povaiah’s views are echoed by another planter who chose to be anonymous: “Siddaramaiah has just made people lazy.”
However, the welfare measures taken by the Siddaramaiah government does have some support base in the region as well. “Over all the state government has done a good job. If we see the Anya-bhagya programme of giving rice cheap and other subsidies for Muslims,” then they have done a good job,” says Najeeb.
As far is BJP is concerned, the party has been in power in both constituencies for three terms. Manjunath says the current BJP MLA, K G Bopaiah, has backstabbed and suppressed the Kodavas. He goes on to add that even though the MLA appears to oppose Tipu jayanti, they have done nothing to stop it either. “Only when the government came to celebrate Tipu Jayanti in Coorg, they posed to oppose. When funds were being allocated in the Legislative Assembly they had done nothing about it,” he says. Manjunath goes on to explain that even though he does not support the Congress candidate wholeheartedly, he might still vote for him over the BJP candidate.
“For planters, the loan waiver by Kumaraswamy is appealing. That might play a part in the way people vote,” says the planter. Yamuna Aiyappa also says that she would support the JD(S). “They have offered some benefits for pregnant women and also for children. I don’t know if they will come true, but still I support them,” she says.
Retired Colonel Subbaiah explains that the real problem lies in the fact that the MLAs in Coorg have not taken up local issues. “We want to protect our environment. We want river Kaveri to be clean. We don’t want a railway line in Coorg, nor do we want a six-lane road to go through Coorg. But both the BJP MLAs have done nothing about them,” he says. “Unless the MLAs take up the local issues, there is no point in all this fuss over elections,” says Subbaiah.
Next, we move to Mangalore following the Tipu trail
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