Tipu Sultan: Separating the wheat from the chaff

In true sense, the Mysore ruler was the pioneer of anti-British struggle in the sub-continent

Photo courtesy: Twitter
Photo courtesy: Twitter

Ram Puniyani

From a couple of years now around November 10, BJP has been undertaking a smear campaign against Tipu Sultan. Incidentally, for the last three years, the Government of Karnataka has been celebrating the anniversary of Tipu. As such, he is the only King who laid down his life while fighting against the British. This year around as November 10 approached, Anant Kumar Hegde, Union Minister and BJP leader from Karnataka, turned down the invitation of the Karnataka Government to be part of the Tipu anniversary celebration. His argument was that Tipu was a mass murderer, a wretched fanatic and a rapist. The BJP organised protests at many places.

Certain sections of the Kannada society also consider him as a tyrant who apparently forcibly converted many. He is also accused of promoting Persian at the cost of Kannada. It is also alleged that his letters to his Generals, claimed to be in British possession now, show that he believed that kafirs should be decimated. There is no dearth of such periodic controversies being raked up around his name. What is being propagated on the basis of some flimsy sources is that he destroyed hundreds of temples and killed thousands of Brahmins!

Incidentally just a month ago, Ram Nath Kovind, President of India, who has a RSS background, was on a different trip. He praised Tipu by saying that “Tipu Sultan died a heroic death fighting the British. He was also a pioneer in the development and use of Mysore rockets in warfare.” Many BJP spokespersons, uncomfortable with this statement, undermined the President by saying that false inputs were provided to Rashtrapati Bhavan by the Karnataka Government.

As such, there are diverse attitudes towards Tipu within the RSS-BJP stable itself. In 2010, B.S. Yeddyyurappa, the BJP leader adorned Tipu’s headgear and held a mock sword, on the eve of elections. In 1970s, RSS had published a book praising Tipu, calling him patriotic, this book was part of Bharat Bharati series.

On the other side, noted Kannada playwright Girish Karnad is all praise for Tipu to the extent that he supported the demand to rename Bangaluru airport in his name. Karnad has also been stating that had Tipu been Hindu, he would have been accorded the same status in Karnataka, which Shivaji has in Maharashtra.

One recalls that Tipu has been made popular through the 60 episode serial based on Bhagwan Gidwani’s script, ‘The Sword of Tipu Sultan’, which also focuses on the fight of Tipu against the British East India Company. Tipu had corresponded with the Marathas and Nizam of Hyderabad to try to dissociate them from the British forces, the intrusion of which he saw particularly harmful for this region. This policy of his led to various battles with the British. It was in the fourth Anglo-Mysore war of 1799 battle that he lost his life. He has been immortalised in the popular memory of Karnataka people through folk songs. This is very much akin to iconisation of Shivaji in popular memory in Maharashtra.

Why did Tipu use Persian as his court language? It is important to recognise that Persian was the court language in the sub-continent at that time. Even Shivaji of Maharashtra was using Persian in his correspondence and had Maulana Hyder Ali as his Chief Secretary precisely for this job. Tipu was not a religious fanatic as he is being projected by them today. Tipu’s policies were not driven by religion. In fact, in his letter to Shankaracharya of Kamkoti Peetham, he refers to the Acharya as Jagatguru (World Teacher). He also donated rich offerings to his shrine.

When the Maratha army of Patwardhan plundered the Sringeri monastery, Tipu Sultan respectfully restored the monastery to its glory. During his reign, the ten-day Dusshera celebrations were an integral part of the social life of Mysore. Sarfaraz Shaikh in his book ‘Sultan-E-Khudad’ has reproduced the ‘Manifesto of Tipu Sultan’. In it, he declares that he would not discriminate on religious grounds and would protect his empire until his last breath.

There is a charge that he persecuted certain communities. It is true. The reason for this persecution was purely political not religious. About these persecutions historian Kate Brittlebank comments, “This was not a religious policy but one of chastisement”. The communities targeted by him were seen as disloyal to the state. The communities he targeted did not just belong to Hindu stream he also acted against some Muslim communities like the Mahdavis. The reason was that these communities were in support of British and were employed as horsemen in the British East India Company’s armies. Another historian Susan Bayly says that his attack on Hindus and Christians outside his state is to be seen on political grounds as he at the same time had developed close relations with these communities within Mysore.

As such, the alleged letters in possession of British, where he is supposed to have talked of killing Kafirs and converting them, needs to be seen rationally, their genuineness apart. We have to see the person in his totality. When he has Purnaiyya, a Hindu Brahmin, as his Chief Advisor, when he is all respectful to Shankaracharya of Kanchi Kamkotipeetham, it is unlikely that he could have been on a murder spree of Hindus. The British have been harsh against Tipu on purpose as he was the one to oppose the advance of British in India and wrote to the Marathas and the Nizam to keep the British out. Due to this, he was singled out by British who vehemently demonised their opponents. There is a need to have a balanced picture of this warrior king, who took on the might of the British and could foresee that the British were a different power, to be shunned at all cost. In that sense, he is the pioneer of anti-British resistance on this soil.

The vacillation of communal elements, caught betwen praising him and demonising him, is enough of a pointer.

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