Appropriating Tipu Sultan: 'Intolerant' Mysuru ruler no different to current politicians, so why the hype

M Raghuram | Nov 8, 2018 | 6 min read

Editor's Note: Despite strong opposition from BJP and other factions, the Congress-JD(S) coalition government in Karnataka is gearing up for Tipu Jayanti on 10 November. But the celebrations are likely to be muted this year; all events are being restricted to indoors and the security apparatus is on high alert for potential violence. More than one group in Karnataka is opposed to this state-sanctioned commemoration of Tipu Sultan's legacy, which they maintain is a brutal and controversial one. In this first part on a series, we speak to eminent historians to understand what are the facts about Tipu's reign that are definitely accepted by their peers and how the gaps in this information have driven the narratives around the colonial-era hero among different communities.

Will the real Tipu Sultan please stand up
M Raghuram  
Mangaluru: The days leading up to Tipu Jayanti have been tumultuous in recent years. In 2015, right-wing organisations opposed to the celebrations clashed with Muslim groups who took out a rally resulting in two deaths. Violent clashes have rocked the state in the past two years as well. It is around this time every year that different narratives surrounding the legacy of Tipu Sultan are questioned, critiqued and analysed compulsively. Hindu activists demonise him as a tyrant and intolerant ruler and the Kodavas hold him responsible for genocide. While the Christian community points towards the captivity of thousands of their people, Muslims try to prop him as a national icon. Naturally, thus, in the realm of politics, Tipu Sultan has become an object of appropriation.

Historians and researchers hold a more nuanced opinion of Tipu, refraining from compartmentalising his actions. “He had to do what any ruler has to do to keep himself in power. Why look at him as a demonic figure? One cannot compare him with Aurangzeb as the times when Tipu lived in was the first few years of the British in India. He did what a ruler incensed and intimidated by the presence of foreign forces would do. During this struggle there were many social upheavals and cultural turmoil and military actions as well,” says Hanuma Naik, a senior faculty member of the Department of History in Mangalore University.

Among the many accusations against Tipu is the inclusion of Arabic as a language. As students of history, we find many edicts that are in Kannada and many more in Sanskrit that belonged to his time. If he was so intolerant, how do these edicts written in Kannada and Sanskrit exist?” the professor points out. "As an administrator and ruler, Tipu was no different from his counterparts of our times. He did what he had to in order to remain in power which cannot be disputed at this point in time. How many of our modern day politicians do things that are not in line with the public expectations?” asks Naik. 

The Christian community of Dakshina Kannada has a deep-rooted grouse against Tipu Sultan which stems from the fact that the ruler had taken around 20,000 Christians from Mangaluru and lodged them in an open space without food, water or shelter for many days in Srirangapatna near Mysuru. While many unwilling Christians were killed on the way and many were converted and enslaved, women of the community were converted to Islam and 'distributed' among the army of Tipu Sultan and their children engaged in domestic help. The ‘Tiger of Mysore’ had also demolished many shrines and churches belonging to the Catholic Christians of Kanara and Mangaluru. Though the Christians were released after the fourth Anglo-Mysore war in 1799 when Tipu was defeated in Srirangapatna, only 6000 returned to Mangaluru. Christian leaders like Oscar Fernandes, Ivan D’Souza and J R Lobo—seated at different levels of democratic institutions—along with bishops and religious leaders are opting for a dignified silence on the issue of Tipu Jayanti. "Are they afraid that if they broke their silence the state government will be hurt and the Christian leaders might be thrown out of their posts?” asks Robert Rosario, leader of the Canara Christian Forum. 

The former head of the Department of History of Mangalore University, Professor Surendra Rao has a different set of beliefs. “Describing Tipu’s identity as a king has to be done with a great deal of inquiry. In the Tipu Jayanti issue, there has been no inquiry and without it, it is as good as any other Jayanti where such functions are held to please a community,” he says.  “History goes to say that Tipu had fought three wars with the British. The first Anglo-Mysore war was fought by his father Hyder Ali, the second war was begun by Ali but completed by Tipu. Third and fourth Anglo Mysore war was entirely fought by him. History also states that Tipu took a large number of Hindus and Christians captive but the veracity of numbers and the brutality levels are subject to verification,” Rao adds.

"Hundreds of families from Kadanthal had been on the battlefield with Tipu Sultan. Brahmin families, who had scholars serving in Tipu's capital of Srirangapatnam, display prizes and awards given by him to their ancestors even today,” says a former Archaeological Survey of India official living in Kanthal. “If Tipu was such a hateful person as he is now being depicted, how is the Srirangaraja temple, which is almost an integral part of Tipu’s palace, still intact? There are many instances of Tipu offering puja there. He even contributed to the development of the temple and, we find this in the several edicts that are available,” he says on the condition of anonymity.

In his book about Tipu's Karnataka, Professor Chennabasappa writes about Tipu's contribution to Sharada Sringeri Peetham, Nanjundeshwara temple in Nanjangudu, Melkote Cheluvanarayana temple and even Shankaranarayana temple near Kundapur on the coastal line. Even the edicts restored by Sringeri Sharada Peetham in Chikkamagluru district talk about the funding received by Tipu after the Marathas had attacked the temple and defaced it.  

Meanwhile, watching these conflicting narratives from the sidelines are the descendants of Tipu Sultan, headed by Asif Ali. Speaking to FirstPost, Ali said, "We are worried about certain segments of the society attributing wrong things to the Sultan and accusing him of violence and subjugation; we watch this with tearful eyes and a heavy heart." Ali and many other descendants of Tipu are now living in Kolkata and some of them are in abject poverty, says Mohammad Ilyas Moulvi, a professor in the Jamia Islamia Madrasa of Bhatkal. He said the Muslim community has appealed to several past governments that these descendants should be rehabilitated in Mysore or in Srirangapatnam, where the government has taken over all the palaces, quilas and even homes belonging to Tipu Sultan. "Asif Ali also visited Mysore, Bhatkal and Mangalore in 2015, but the government has not yet moved to rehabilitate them," he says.

"We would like to move to Karnataka and be a part of Tipu's heritage, but we do not have anything there - no house, no jobs and no base," Ali says. 
 [The author is a Mangaluru-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters' grassroots network.]

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