India has always been fascinated by the image of eighteenth century Mysore ruler Tipu Sultan. There are those who indulge in what is often referred to as ‘Tipu mania,’ and hold up the image of the Sultan as a nationalist hero who modernised the economy and society of Mysore. There are also those for whom Tipu’s name is associated with a past engulfed in tyranny and persecution. What is interesting is how his image has served the purpose of contemporary politics, to divide vote bank down the middle. As Karnataka approaches its Legislative Assembly elections, indianexpress.com travels through those regions of the state where the footprints of the erstwhile Mysore ruler can still show the path in the upcoming elections, well over two centuries after his death.
After a breezy bus ride through coconut tree lined roads dropped me off at the ‘historical town of Srirangapatna’, I was immediately surrounded by a group of auto drivers who proudly lay down at my service a trip to the best attractions of their place. Ranjeet, who was quick to catch my attention, had a pile of photographs in his hand that he kept flipping through to give me a glimpse of what his town had to offer. “Tipu’s summer palace, Tipu’s burial ground, Tipu death place, Tipu’s mosque,” chanted Ranjeet as the list went on. In the little town of Srirangapatna in Karnataka, the footsteps of Mysore ruler Tipu Sultan can be heard loud and clear even two centuries after his death.
There are ice-cream parlours and other roadside shops named after him and tourists pour in from all across the country to catch a glimpse of the man believed to be one of the toughest adversaries of the British. It is also not uncommon to see Muslims from far and wide visiting his relics to offer their prayers. Keeping in mind the popularity and historical importance of Tipu Sultan in Karnataka, the Siddaramaiah-led Congress government in 2015 announced that it would celebrate Tipu Jayanti every year on November 10.
Controversy and violence soon followed, with many accusing the Congress of playing vote bank politics. However, a quick tour around Srirangapatna reveals that the ‘Tiger of Mysore’ is roaring rather loudly in favour of the Congress party this electoral season. The mood appears to be unanimously in favour of the Congress in this constituency where the JD(S) has been in power since 2004.
How history favours Tipu Sultan
The siege of Srirangapatna, resulting in the death of Tipu in 1799, was a most significant moment in Indian colonial history. The battle that has been recorded in the most dramatic of ways was momentous in that it finally established indirect British control over the kingdom of Mysore. It is noted that the British broke through the city walls with a large army and eventually killed Tipu. When the latter was advised to escape using a secret passageway, he is believed to have bravely remarked, “better to live one day as a tiger than a thousand years as a sheep”.
With those words, Tipu lost his life defending his capital and was laid to rest at the Gumbaz, right next to his father Hyder Ali’s grave. Historian Kate Brittlebank notes in her work, ‘Seringapatnam revisited’ that the fall of Srirangapatna was the very moment that mythologised Tipu and made him the heroic figure he is today. At present, the Gumbaz, where his grave lies, is a major tourist attraction. Further, it is also a place of worship for the Muslims. As I walked about the grave’s campus, trying to talk to visitors and caretakers about the upcoming elections, I was promptly interrupted: “Yeh Allah ka jagah hain, yahaan politics ki baatein mat karo (this is a place of God, don’t talk about politics here).”
The eulogising of Tipu spreads across the length and breadth of Srirangapatna. For most he is the hero who sacrificed his life for the country and for many others he is one of the greatest men history has seen. “Hazrat Tipu Sultan ne toh watan ke liye qurbani di thi, unke naam pe jayanti karne mein koi burai toh nahi hain. (Hazrat Tipu Sultan martyred for the nation. There is nothing wrong in celebrating his birth anniversary),” says Inayatul Rahman, one of the imams at the Jama Masjid in Srirangapatna. “A lot of people are not aware of what all Tipu Sultan did for the country. The government’s move will be useful in educating the people,” says Shaifullah Ullasharif, one of the caretakers at the Gumbaz. Lakshmi who works as a guide at Tipu’s summer palace enthusiastically gave a detailed account of the way Tipu defended Mysore and how the kingdom finally fell to the British. Asked what she thought about the claims that Tipu forcefully converting a large number of Hindus and Christians, she resolutely maintains that it was not the case. “Tipu Sultan was a good man.”
How Srirangapatna favours the Congress
Retired school teacher Fahmida Begum spend 26 years of her life teaching at Urdu LLP school in Srirangapatna. Fahmida, who used to eagerly teach her students about the victories of Tipu Sultan, narrated an incident about 7-8 years back when she was not allowed to place a photograph of the ruler inside her school’s campus. “I had decided to place his photograph amidst the decorations of Independence Day or Republic Day and that led to so much controversy. Finally, I had to remove it. Not a single photo of his was allowed inside the campus,” she says. Blaming the BJP for not recognising Muslim heroes, Fahmida maintains that it is necessary for the Congress to win if religious peace is to be maintained. “Siddaramaiah government has done a lot here. Unlike in places where the BJP is in power, we do not experience any religious conflicts. Hindus, Muslims live together peacefully,” she says.
Fahmida’s thoughts are echoed by Imam Inayatul Rahman who believes that whoever is in power should first make sure that there is unity among the various religious community. “In that sense the Congress has done very well here. Unlike what is happening in UP, here everyone lives together peacefully,” he says.
Asked about whether the religious violence that followed the decision to celebrate Tipu Jayanti will have any impact on votes for Congress, the residents of Srirangapatna are very confident that it will not. “We are very sure that the Congress will win. BJP will not come here,” says Shafiullah Ullasharif. This clearly seemed to be the mood across this town.
My auto-driver Ranjeet summed it up, maintaining that in Mysore and Srirangapatna the Congress has always been more popular. “BJP’s is not very popular here,” he says.