Research by Ishita Dewan.
Written by Arjav Kulshreshtha.

On Tuesday, the Karnataka High Court turned down a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) which opposed the celebration of Tipu Jayanti. Slated to be celebrated across the Karnataka on November 10, Tipu Jayanti has been a contested event: the Indian National Congress has hailed Tipu Sultan as a patriot because he fought against the British. On the other hand, the Bhartiya Janata Party has denounced the legitimacy of his legacy, citing him as a mass murderer and rapist.

Born in 1750, Tipu Sultan’s re-emergence in contemporary dialogue is rooted in the politics of Karnataka and the election campaigns of the INC and BJP, with each party recounting his legacy through prejudiced lenses to gain political traction of their own for the upcoming elections. But it is primarily of no use to bisect Tipu as simply a nationalist or as a bigot, because he was concerned with saving his kingdom from the British in a manner that most pre-modern rulers would carry out, given his context. In fact, Tipu used to wage battle with almost all of the powers around his kingdom irrespective of their faith. Once again, vote-bank fuelled political discourse has trivialized an eminent historical figure to a mere binary, derailing our conversation from the principled actions that Tipu led his life by.

Tipu Sultan was the son of Haider Ali, a professional soldier who climbed the ranks in the army of the Wadiyar King of Mysore to ultimately take over the reigns in 1761. As a 17-year-old, Tipu fought in the first Anglo-Mysore War (1767-69) and against the Marathas in the Second Anglo-Mysore War (1780-84). Haider Ali died during the Second Anglo-Mysore, and Tipu succeeded him in 1782, organising his army along European strategies by using state-of-the-art technology.

Whether Tipu is viewed as a tyrant or a hero is subjective, and there is little that separates the way in which Tipu was portrayed to the public by the British Raj and how today’s right-wing politicians depict him

Indeed, Tipu was persistently zealous about his Islamic faith. The Hindu right-wing de-legitimise his legacy as evidence of Muslim bigotry responsible for killing thousands of Kodavas from Kodagu district (referred to as Coorg at the time) and for converting Catholic Christians into Muslims. The same fear was perceived by British conquerors who took control over his subjects in Mysore; colonial historians demonised him because he defeated the Company in wars and aligned with the French to frustrate the Raj’s political supremacy.

A light reading of history makes it apparent that Tipu Sultan has been evaluated on the basis of his political conquests with little attention paid to recounting his personality. But an apolitical understanding of Tipu will help us recognise his impact on India today.

Tipu always tried reconciling with a middle ground depending on the relational circumstances he faced at the time. He had strict instructions for Amils, Serishtadars and Shamboges to attend office and compile accounts from 9 am to 5 pm. But when riots occurred, he would request only those people to pay their taxes in full who could afford to pay. Tipu had strong beliefs about Islam, which were largely the reason for his opposition to a variety of elements, such as the imposition of restrictions on the sale of liquor, bhaang and prostitution. There are instances wherein he even challenged polygamy since it was in dissonance with his moderate Islamic beliefs. Interestingly, both Tipu Sultan and Haider Ali backed certain Jain institutions, Hindu temples and mathematics.

Tipu was not as ruthless a tyrant as colonial accounts may lead us to believe. We can say this because he treated his British prisoners of war with kindness and leniency: he would give the prisoners clothes, and even a special meal on the birthday of Prince George III. In contrast to his displays of kindness towards prisoners of war, Tipu used to purchase slaves. Clearly, our confusion about Tipu Sultan’s integrity as a ruler and as an individual arises from such contradictory instances — Tipu’s rule was ripe with these.

The Syrian Christian community has suffered some of the worst atrocities at the hands of Tipu Sultan. Tipu’s hatred towards the Syrian Christians seems to originate from the fact that the Christians from Canara and other regions actually supported the British. Several Christians joined forces with the British by serving in the East India Company, by acting as spies for the British or by providing them with monetary assistance. This is because the Christians were disgruntled with the heavy taxes and levies imposed by Tipu. Figures estimate that Tipu dispossessed and deported 20,000 Christians from the Canara region and between 40,000 to 50,000 Christians were relocated throughout Mysore. In 1788, the French governor of Pondicherry had taken permission from Tipu to build new missionary churches in Mysore. But, by 1790, all the Christian missionaries had been expelled from Mysore. Missionary records up till 1799 actually state that Tipu killed many priests and destroyed 25 churches, seminaries and convents, all the while converting many Christians to Islam.

Along with this harsh treatment of Christians, Hindus in Coorg and Malabar were especially punished by Tipu; there had been 10 rebellions over 25 years in Coorg. Tipu admitted in a letter that he saw to it that 50,000 rebels were deported from Coorg to Mysore, and converted them to Islam[1]. Although, tales of atrocities associated with the late eighteenth-century Mysorean invasions are exaggerated, in Malabar and parts of Tamil Nadu, Tipu is remembered as a Brahmin-killer and a defiler of south Indian temples. Similarly, Muslims who disobeyed his orders or were suspected of being involved in acts of treachery were punished: the expulsion of Mahdavis from Tipu’s territory in 1794 is a case in point. However, it is important to realise that as compared to the treatment that was meted out to the Muslim and Hindu traitors, the onslaught of punishment doled out against the Christians was much harsher and disproportionate.

Tipu has been reduced to a bloodthirsty tyrant who burnt down entire villages, razing hundreds of temples and churches along the way. But even Tipu ─ who used Islamic holy war as a technique of statecraft outside his kingdom ─ was careful in fostering close ritual and political relations with Hindus and even Christians within his own domain. This, of course, was contingent on the fact that these groups posed no threat to his supremacy. For example, the Sringeri monastery had an ancient lineage which led the temple to be patronised by rulers – both Hindu and Muslim – ever since it was founded. Tipu continued this tradition by maintaining close relationships with the abbey, sending it valuable gifts and making the monastery a tax-free zone. In fact, in his personal correspondence, Tipu would refer to the monastery’s swami, as “jagadguru” or “ruler of the world”. When the Marathas were going to attack the Sringeri Monastery, Tipu was asked for help by the Swami of the temple. The Sultan also made monetary arrangements for the consecration of the Goddess and also sent along his token gifts for the idol. While he advocated an exclusively Islamic identity for his regime towards the end of his reign, all these reference points further blur Tipu’s relationship vis-a-vis Hindus.

Post the 1792 Siege of Seringapatam
General Lord Cornwallis receiving Tipu Sultan’s sons as hostages post the1792 Siege of Seringapatam, by Robert Home, Source

Tipu Sultan saw the British as invaders and outsiders; he was certainly not the first or last local power to resist them. While the Marathas were defeated by the British in the Third Mysore War of 1817-18 and the Sikhs in 1849 during the Second Anglo Sikh war, Tipu’s stubborn resilience could have been the cause for his own demise at the hands of the British. But no one predicted this; at the time, Lord Mornington wanted Mysore to surrender but resorted to attacking Mysore because Tipu reacted badly when the British lied to him about a senior officer of Tipu’s having been killed. Instead of showing signs of surrendering, Tipu decided to fight; therefore, the Fourth Anglo-Mysore War of 1798-99 was initiated by the British as a preemptive attack when they realised that diplomacy would not be effective. Tipu had no time to evacuate his family since the British would come to know about his family’s evacuation. Although it would have been humiliating for the ‘Tiger of Mysore’ to sign a subsidiary treaty with the British, nothing indicated that he would have sacrificed his own family for his prestige. Tipu Sultan was finally killed in battle during the Siege of Seringapatam in 1799. His body had been discovered by the British and mourned by hoards of his subjects.

Indeed, Tipu was a courageous ruler, whose main aim was to protect his kingdom from the British, but the only way to meet this end was to drive the British out of India. Still, he will always be a polarising character in politics today, what with neither side willing to hear the other. The destruction of the Mysore sultanate and the death of Tipu Sultan at Seringapatam in 1799 did not bring this situation of temple burning and destruction to an end.

Although it would take a long analysis to fully understand the enigma that encompasses Tipu Sultan, one must first realise that he is a multi-layered figure who cannot be defined in simple binary terms. Tipu Sultan was a nationalist and a patriot in some respects, and an Islamic fanatic in others. What we must understand is that what the Congress and BJP are doing is trying to reduce Tipu to a simple, definable historical figure, which does injustice to what Tipu Sultan actually stood for and practised.

[1] Kaveh Yazdani: India, Modernity and the Great Divergence: Mysore and Gujarat, p. 326


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The opinions expressed in this post are the personal views of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of Bastion Media. Any omissions or errors are the author’s and Bastion Media does not assume any liability or responsibility for them.

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