Why we love to hate Tipu Sultan

Karnataka’s Republic Day float featuring the ruler reignited an old controversy


The float representing Karnataka at this year’s Republic Day Parade. Photo: Mohd Zakir/Hindustan Times
The float representing Karnataka at this year’s Republic Day Parade. Photo: Mohd Zakir/Hindustan Times

After the storming of the fort of Srirangapatna in May 1799, which led to the annihilation of the most feared foe of the British—Tipu Sultan of Mysore—the victors found a curious toy in his chambers. “The Musical Tiger”, as it was called, was made up of a tiger preying on an English soldier, and so constructed that by the turning of a handle the animal’s growls mingled with the shrieks of its dying victim. Tipu’s favourite toy kept him busy in his waking hours and further deepened his hatred for the British.

The conquerors were amused by this contraption and shipped it to London and, strangely, parked it in the India Office Library. Tipu’s spirit seemed to plague his foes even after his death and hence, as the librarian A.J. Arberry recounted in his memoir The Library of the India Office: A Historical Sketch, “when students were in the midst of deep study, the possessed toy would suddenly swing into action scaring the wits off everyone there with its loud shrieks and growls!”

The Musical Tiger. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Much like the toy playing its act on unsuspecting students, the ghost of Tipu Sultan resurfaces every now and then, allowing contemporary politics to play out on either side of the debate—be it controversies related to naming a university after him, his outlook towards other religions or Kannada, or, as we saw last weekend, the decision of the Karnataka government to honour him with a tableau at the Republic Day parade.

Reactions have predictably been divided down the middle and along expected lines. “So Karnataka is all about Tipu Sultan who killed thousands of Hindus??? Is this what secularism is all about??” screamed one tweet while another questioned, “If TN or West Bengal send a tableau of Robert Clive, will Centre accept it?” The Kannada literary world too is traditionally divided into pro and anti camps, with the likes of Girish Karnad and U.R. Ananthamurthy on one side and S.L. Bhyrappa on the other. The true casualty in all this cacophony has unfortunately been history, and sadly, Tipu Sultan himself.

Tipu, a bundle of contradictions, is an enigma and a modern historian’s biggest puzzle. His ascent to power was accidental. His father Haidar Ali was bought as a slave by the maharaja of Mysore. But in a series of fascinating events where the Machiavellian Haidar ran with the hare and hunted with the hounds, he ended up overthrowing his own benefactor and usurping the throne of Mysore from the Wodeyars in 1761. Haidar was shrewd enough not to dispense with the Wodeyars who had been ruling Hindu-majority Mysore since 1399.

The maharaja was a titular puppet—orders would go in his name, trophies of war were submitted to his feet, yet everyone knew where the real power rested. Tipu, though, had no reason for such diplomacy and dispensed with this appendage. He assumed complete sovereignty over Mysore, which became Sultanat-e-Khudadad, or the Kingdom of God, and he, its sultan. The members of the erstwhile royal family, led by the matriarch Rani Lakshmi Ammanni, who was carrying on low-intensity conspiracies against the usurpers, were put under house arrest. Tipu’s insecurities are evident in his actions, as also his writings, assiduously jotted down in his own hand in a diary. The names of places were Islamized, new coins minted, Persian replaced Kannada as the court language, old palaces, forts and bridges were destroyed and reconstructed in the same place—all in an obvious attempt to obliterate every trace of Wodeyar rule and stamp his own.

Tipu Sultan is an enigma for historians. Photo: Arvind Yadav/Hindustan Times
Tipu’s reformist zeal touched every department—coinage, calendar, weights and measures, banking, finance, trade and commerce, agriculture, industry, social and cultural life. He reorganized the administration and a hitherto emasculated Mysorean army and navy. Tipu is credited as the pioneer of rocket technology in India, something that was “copied” by the British and introduced later as the “Congreve Rocket”. Experimenting with novel ideas like cooperative banking and interest-free agricultural loans, he created a big market for Mysorean products internationally.

As Karnad, who researched him for his play The Dreams of Tipu Sultan, says: “Tipu nationalized the sale of sandalwood and brought in silkworm farming. He learnt how to improve the economy from the British and implemented it in his kingdom. Had he been Hindu, he would have been worshipped as the man who made this state.”

Tipu had such an obsession for horticulture and gardening that much of his correspondence with foreign dignitaries would invariably carry a request for new varieties of seeds and plants. Haidar and he are credited with establishing the 40-acre Lalbagh Botanical Garden in Bangalore.

He had an unbridled revulsion for the British and their expansionist designs, and to vanquish them he was willing to make any compromise or alliance with their foes. Mysore held fort for close to 40 years and fought four bloody wars. Tipu wooed the French, who were no less colonial in their designs, and sent letters to Napoleon Bonaparte and Zaman Shah of Afghanistan to create a grand international alliance to defeat the British.

What then sullies his legacy, the reader might wonder. This is where the manner in which contemporary political discourse has intruded into the life of a historical figure, has muddied waters. In our zeal to be on the right or left of Indian politics, we have thrust Tipu (and other rulers like him) to the scrutiny of “Secularism”, “Communalism” and “Nationalism”—terms that were non-existent in 18th century India. Judging characters of the past by the yardsticks and definitions of today is being grossly unfair to them because the facts don’t fit our straightjacket.

There are 30 reverential letters written by Tipu in Kannada to the then Shankaracharya of Sringeri. Incidentally, while the Maratha rulers are the icons of Hindu nationalism today, during the Third Anglo-Mysore War, in 1791, Parashuram Bhau ravaged Mysore and damaged the very seat of Hinduism—the Shankaracharya’s temple in Sringeri—and looted its property. It was Tipu who supposedly renovated the temple.

Yet the same Tipu adopted a virulent and repressive policy elsewhere. When he was unable to capture the pradhans of Rani Lakshmi Ammanni, who were carrying on negotiations on her behalf with the British, he ordered the public hanging of around 700 members of the pradhan community, the Mandyam Iyengars—men, women and children—in broad daylight, and that too on Diwali. So much so that to this day some Mandyam Iyengars observe Diwali as a day of mourning.

After his Mangalore campaign, over 60,000 Syrian Christians were taken captive, coerced to convert and brutalized. In his repeated attacks on Malabar, Tipu devastated the warrior Nairs with his atrocities and religious intolerance. Recent discoveries of the diaries of Francois Ripaud, a French sailor who had come to Srirangapatna to assist Tipu but was disenchanted by his brutalities, further substantiates these claims.

Tipu’s own letters demonstrate this zeal. For instance, he writes to Burduz Zamaun Khan on 19 January 1790: “Don’t you know I have achieved a great victory recently in Malabar and over four lakh Hindus were converted to Islam?”, and to Syed Abdul Dulai on 18 January 1790: “With the grace of Prophet Muhammad and Allah, almost all Hindus in Calicut are now converted to Islam. Only a few are still not converted on the borders of Cochin State. I am determined to convert them also very soon. I consider this as Jehad to achieve that object.” Tipu is still hated in many parts of Kerala, Coorg and Mangalore, where many remember his bigotry. Karnad dismisses this as merely “an 18th century reaction to an uprising”.

But these are facts of history that cannot be wished away, just as some of Tipu’s progressive measures are praiseworthy. The moot question is whether we need history and the characters of the past to create social harmony among communities today, and whether this harmony can be founded on falsehood. Bhyrappa earlier had a long war of words with Karnad, whom he accused of “whitewashing fanatics like Tipu and Muhammad bin Tughluq”, postulating that “nationalism can never be strengthened by projecting historical lies”.

With an acknowledgement of excesses and with no albatross of guilt on the members of any community today, one needs to move on. Glossing over history or, worse, creating a false one even as facts stare you in the face, is lethal. In between black and white is a huge continuum of grey, and being as human as any one of us, Tipu belongs to this zone of grey too. For all our liberalism, religious identity is enmeshed in our political discourse today. But this does not seem to have been the case 200 years ago—religion was used as a tool for cultural subjugation of the conquered. Else, would the Marathas have plundered Sringeri? Would the nizam and Tipu not have been natural allies?

Historical figures need to be freed from the clutches of contemporary politics and left to academic study by historians, and be judged as products of their time and circumstances. Identification of a ruler’s legacy with a community is dangerous, especially when fragile sensitivities get so easily offended.

Voltaire had famously said, “History is the lie commonly agreed upon!”. In the case of Tipu Sultan, sadly, common agreement on even this lie eludes us.

Vikram Sampath is the Bangalore-based author of Splendours of Royal Mysore: The Untold Story of the Wodeyars.

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