By Ram Puniyani
A fierce debate was raging in Karnataka around the decision of the Government to celebrate Tipu Sultan’s anniversary on November 10, 2016. On a similar program last year, three people lost their lives while protesting.
The Tiger of Mysore
Tipu Sultan, fondly called “The Tiger of Mysore” was a popular king and the son of Hyder Ali. Many plays and folk poems are prevalent all over the state about his bravery. Killed during the 4th Anglo-Mysore War of 1799, he was the only king to die at the hands of the British.
Popular playwright Girish Karnad had stated that Bangalore airport should be named after him for his contributions. Karnad also pointed out that had he been a Hindu, he would be held on the same pedestal as Chattrapati Shivaji.
However, certain sections of the society consider him a tyrant who engaged in mass murder and forced conversions. 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.
Interestingly, in 2010, the current President of BJP in Karnataka, B.S. Yeddyurappa had adorned Tipu’s headgear and held a mock sword to appeal to the Muslim voters.
Today he is leading the protests against revering the ‘Tiger’ in any way. In an another such turnaround case, the Bharat Bharati series published by RSS in the 1970s praises him as a patriot and heroic personality. Today he is presented as a religious fanatic by the same forces.
Who was Tipu Sultan? How did he contribute to the freedom movement? Was he a pragmatic leader or an authoritative tyrant? The answer seems to lie in a demonising process started by the British to weaken the respect that he commanded in the region. Tipu posed a great threat to the British. His contribution to warfare technology, used against the British is well documented. Initially, he was the major force against British colonial expansion in India.
He had corresponded with the Marathas and Nizam of Hyderabad to dissociate themselves from the British forces, the intrusion of which he saw particularly harmful for this region. This policy of his led to various battles against them. It was in one of these battles in which he lost his life and was immortalised in the popular memory of Karnataka people.
Considering his policy of using Persian, it is important to recognise that Persian was the court language in the sub-continent at that time. He was not a religious fanatic as he is being projected 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, ten-day Dushehara celebrations were an integral part of the social life of Mysore.
His right-hand man was a Brahmin, Purnnaiya, who was his Chief Minister. Many of his other ministers were also Brahmins. There are also accounts that he funded the Hindu mutts out of political considerations of winning the loyalty of his subjects. His alliances were not guided by religion but by power calculations. Sarfaraz Shaikh in his book ‘Sultan-E-Khudad’ has reproduced the ‘Manifesto of Tipu Sultan’. In it, he declares that Tipu would not be discriminate on religious grounds and would protect his empire until his last breath.
However, it is true that he targeted certain communities. Historian Kate Brittlebank comments about his policies saying, “This was not a religious policy but one of chastisement”.
The communities targeted by him were seen as disloyal to the state. As a matter of fact, he also acted against some Muslim communities like the Mahdavis. The reason, however, was not religion. These communities were in support of British and employed as horsemen in the East India Company’s armies. Another historian Susan Bayly says that his attacking 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.
A true freedom fighter
The British had vested interests in projecting him as a Muslim fundamentalist. They propagated that they are coming to save the non-Muslims from the tyranny of Tipu. This was their standard ploy to unleash the wars. One can say that we should not eulogise the kingdoms or kings in current time. They can’t be our national icons.
Still, Tipu stands out from amongst all the kings who ruled different parts of the sub-continent who could see the dangers of British coming here. In that sense, he is amongst the first to lay down his life against British rule. Freedom movement in India built up gradually with mass participation. Tipu laying down his life does need to be recognised. In today’s times when communal ideology is going strong, such icons are being demonised. Tipu’s anti-British contribution cannot be undermined!
Ram Puniyani is a former professor of biomedical engineering and former senior medical officer affiliated with the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay.
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