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Tipu Sultan: Religious zealot or nationalist hero?

Conflicting historical references paint him as an able military commander, implacable foe of the British, and even an oppressive zealot

BS Web Team  |  New Delhi 

Tipu Sultan: Religious zealot or nationalist hero ?

Tipu Sultan, who ruled Mysore in the 18th century, has lately become a cause for political slugfest and violent protests, with the Karnataka government deciding to celebrate ‘Tipu Sultan Jayanti’.

According to a Times of India report, at least three people have lost their lives so far, besides several others who were injured, in the aftermath of the celebrations. The Bharatiya Janata Party, in the Opposition in Karnataka, has demanded Chief Minister Siddaramaiah’s resignation, saying he has not been able to manage the law and order situation in the state.

The Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal are reportedly staging a “Rastaa Roko” agitation across the state on Friday.

The row over the Mysore ruler’s secular credentials, or a lack thereof, has many historians and academics on either side of the debate. Conflicting historical references paint him as an able military commander, implacable foe of the British, and even an oppressive zealot. Removed from the debate over the ruler himself, a pertinent question is why the state government has decided to celebrate the birth anniversary of a ruler that has been long dead.

Here are five historical and literary references that seek to paint Tipu Sultan as either a true nationalist or a communal zealot:

1) William Dalrymple

In his article titled ‘An essay in imperial villain-making’, for the Guardian, the historian says: “...Wellesley, therefore, began a campaign of vilification against Tipu, portraying him as an aggressive Muslim monster who divided his time between oppressing his subjects and planning to drive the British into the sea.”

Dalrymple adds: “Recent work by scholars has succeeded in reconstructing a very different Tipu to the one-dimensional fanatic invented by Wellesley. Tipu, it is now clear, was one of the most innovative and far-sighted rulers of the pre-colonial period.”

Describing exactly why Tipu had earned the ire of the British, Dalrymple writes: “What really worried the British was less that Tipu was a Muslim fanatic, something strange and alien, but that he was frighteningly familiar: A modernising technocrat who used the weapons of the West against their inventors.”

2) Markandey Katju

Dealing with the topic of the Tipu Jayanti celebrations, and seeking to critique the notion that Tipu might have been communal, the former Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court and former chairman of the Press Council of India, wrote on his blog: “The Editor of Mysore Gazetteer Prof Srikantaiah has listed 156 temples to which Tipu regularly paid annual grants. There is such evidence as grant deeds, and correspondence between his court and temples, and his having donated jewellery and deeded land grants to several temples.”

“Between 1782 and 1799,” Katju wrote, “Tipu Sultan issued 34 Sanads (deeds) of endowment to temples in his domain, while also presenting many of them with gifts of silver and gold plate.”

Describing Tipu’s close relationship with the Shringeri Monastery, a Hindu ‘matha’ established by Adi Shankara, Katju writes: “Tipu’s close relationship with Shringeri did not begin with the sack of Shringeri by the Marathas but had begun much earlier in 1785 AD when Tipu issued a ‘Nirupa’ — Decree regranting the Shringeri Matha with a new ‘patte’ or ‘document’ which confirmed that Shringeri would continue as time-honoured ‘Sarvamanya’ and free from all trouble. ‘Sarvamanya’ meant that the territory under its jurisdiction was tax free and it would enjoy all rights with regard to taxation and law within its territory.”

3) Ravi Varma

Drawing from the accounts of Colonel Fullarton of the British forces stationed in Mangalore, Ravi Varma writes about the brutalities on Brahmins committed by Tipu Sultan in 1783, during his siege of Palghat Fort, which was being defended by the Zamorin and his Hindu soldiers.

Varma, in his article ‘Tipu Sultan: As known in Kerala’, quotes from Fullarton’s official report: “Tipu’s soldiers daily exposed the heads of many innocent Brahmins within sight from the fort for Zamorin and his Hindu followers to see. It is asserted that the Zamorin rather than witness such enormities and to avoid further killing of innocent Brahmins, chose to abandon the Palghat Fort.”

4) Vikram Sampath

Writing for Livemint, Vikram Sampath, the Bengaluru-based author of ‘Splendours of Royal Mysore: The Untold Story of the Wodeyars’, said: “...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.”

To describe his zealotry, Sampath quoted Tipu’s letter to Burduz Zamaun Khan on January 19, 1790: “Don’t you know I have achieved a great victory recently in Malabar and over 400,000 were converted to Islam?”

5) Sandeep Balakrishna quotes Sandeep Balakrishna, the author of ‘Tipu Sultan: The Tyrant of Mysore’, and Chief Editor of IndiaFacts, as saying: “Remnants of his (Tipu Sultan’s) brutality against the hapless Kodavas are visible even today in the form of ruined temples, original Kodava surnames of (forcibly converted) today’s Muslims among other things. Even today, stray dogs in Coorg are contemptuously called “Tipu,” a measure of how intensely he is reviled there.”

First Published: Fri, November 13 2015. 13:25 IST