The forgotten hero

Tipu Sultan

The forgotten hero
Tipu Sultan is one person who has always been misunderstood. While the most important facets of his personality went unnoticed in his life time, and also subsequently, his legacy can best be understood in the context of the times he lived in, writes Salil Misra, of the man who posed the biggest challenge to the imperialist designs of the British...

By all accounts, Tipu Sultan (1750-99), the ruler of Mysore during 1782-99, was a unique personality. This uniqueness has unfortunately been generally misconstrued in the available writings and records on Tipu.

One important feature of these writings is that some crucial important facets of his personality have been overlooked and some myths and falsehoods have been exaggerated out of all proportions. In order to get the record straight, it is necessary to dispel the myths and highlight the facts. That would do justice to Tipu.

One dominant myth is the image of Tipu as a Muslim fanatic and a bigot, driven by excessive Islamicist zeal. The contemporary British writings accused him of it and the records of the Muslim courtiers and chroniclers praised him for it. The British had a reason for portraying him as a Muslim fanatic.

Towards the end of the 18th century, Tipu posed the most formidable threat to the British authority. He was easily the biggest obstacle to the imperialist takeover of India by the British. The grand Mughal empire was nearing its end and most of the regional powers — the princes of Rajputana, Ranjit Singh of Punjab, Marathas and the Nizam of Hyderabad — had either compromised or given it to the British might. None of them foresaw the long-term threat of a takeover by an alien imperial power.

Tipu was the only one among his contemporaries who anticipated the real British design. He could foresee that the British were different from the rest. They were not simply one among the many rivals fighting each other for territory and other resources. He therefore resolved to resist the British till the end and not give in to them. It is therefore understandable that the British writers of the 19th century compared Tipu with ‘Vandal Mahmud of Ghazni’ or the ‘bloodthirsty Nadirshah’.

If the English writings damned Tipu for being a Muslim fanatic, his contemporary Muslim writers praised him for his Islamic zeal and for successfully converting “thousands” to Islam. Since the condemnation and the praise converged on the same point, it easily established the image of Tipu as an over-enthusiastic Muslim zealot, determined to subdue and convert Hindus and Christians.
 
This image could have lived on forever but for the discovery, in 1913, of 21 letters written by Tipu to the priest of Sringeri Math. In these letters, Tipu addressed the head of Sringeri Math as ‘Jagadguru’. Tipu wrote to him: “You are the Jagadguru. You are always performing penance in order that the whole world may prosper, and the people may be happy.
 
Please pray to God for the increase of our prosperity. In whatever country holy personages like yourself may reside, that country will flourish with good showers and crops.”

Soon, more records appeared of a large number of instances of land donated by Tipu to many Hindu temples and other religious personae in South Malabar and Cochin. Some more evidences revealed that the instances of conversions of ‘thousands’ were simply not possible and that Tipu mercilessly persecuted all his political opponents who rebelled against him, whichever religion they belonged to.

This persecution was obviously motivated by political ideas, not religious proselytisation. In 1791, Marathas invaded Sringeri, plundered the temple and killed a large number of priests. The Sankaracharya then appealed to Tipu who immediately sent money and other help for the re-building of the Math.

Who then was the real Tipu? And why should he be considered so important? Tipu’s legacy can best be understood in the context of the times he lived in.

Behind the scene
The 18th century was broadly the time when the world had ceased being flat and started becoming vertical. Old empires and civilisations began to lose their power and eminence to one distinctive new civilisation located on the Atlantic shores of Europe.

The new industrial civilisation, equipped with modern science and technology, surged ahead of the rest in a very short span of time. The countries of North-West Europe, particularly England and France among others, established their superiority and supremacy over the rest of the world.

Importantly, this superiority was not just technological and economic, but also ideological. It soon became clear that the new ascendance was not a mere shift in the existing balance of power. The new power equation had a significance that was neither local nor temporary.
Soon, this superiority resulted in the subordination of the rest of the world by the new superpowers. A new system of imperialism and colonialism was born.

This created an unprecedented dilemma for the countries of the rest of world. The choices for them appeared to be: they could either adopt the ways of new powers, but lose all their independence in the process. Or, alternatively, they could retain their independence, but stay poor. It is painful to remain poor, specially when some part of the world has experienced prosperity. It is also painful to give up one’s traditions and independence, as a price for affluence. What to do? The dilemma could not be easily resolved.

Tipu, like all his contemporaries, faced this dilemma. But, unlike his contemporaries, he did think of a way out of it. For him, the way out was to remain opposed to the British but reach out to other modern industrial powers of the world. In other words, embrace modernity while trying to avoid the trap of imperialism.

He tried to do this by fighting the British but reaching out to the other big European super power — France. Tipu wanted to create a grand alliance of forces against the British, both inside and outside India. He sent his ambassador to France to meet the king in 1788, one year before the French Revolution.

Tipu wanted to help the French in their war against England and in return wanted French help for Indians in their battle against the British. Tipu also wanted craftsmen, artisans, cannon makers, clockmakers, doctors, surgeons and plants and seeds of different kinds from France. However, Tipu’s ambassador could not meet the king and was told that the king of France was not in a position to sign a treaty with Tipu. The king also refused to send any French troops to India to help Tipu.
 
Quite apart from the global transition, 18th century was also marked by an important political transition in India. This Indian transition was engendered by the general weakening of the mighty Mughal empire and the resultant emergence of a number of regional powers.

The boundaries of Tipu’s Mysore were surrounded by hostile Hyderabad, Karnatik and the Marathas. Each threatened the other and was threatened by the other.

Dealing with threats
The threat also came from a new force — the British. Almost intuitively and unlike any of his contemporaries, Tipu could see that the two threats — from Hyderabad and Marathas on the one hand and from the British on the other — were of a very different kind. He could see that the British designs were different from those of the regional powers. The regional powers were interested only in territorial expansion; the British wanted a comprehensive domination over all of India.

In pre-modern times, the desire for territorial expansion was a normal and a natural choice for most rulers. It was the only way in which a ruling dynasty could increase its financial resources. Financial resources would come primarily from land revenue.

This necessitated conquest of neighbouring territories. Conquest required war. War required money. Money could be obtained through more revenue. More revenue required more territory... The circle was closed and complete. All the major powers of South India — Mysore, Karnatik, Hyderabad and the Marathas — were faced by similar choices. Each wanted to encroach on the territory of the other.

Each threatened the other, and was threatened by the other. But unlike the others, Tipu really understood the difference between defeating a force and expelling a force. All the other powers only needed to be defeated; British needed to be expelled. Tipu wrote in one of his documents: “I want to expel them (British) from India. I want to be a friend of the French in all my life”.

Tipu was really keen on developing a French connection. He was perhaps the first Indian to grasp the global significance of the French Revolution of 1789. Following the Revolution, he began referring to himself as “Citizen Tipu”. He also got a special tree planted in his palace, called the tree of liberty, and started a club called the Jacobin Club. It was not till a century later that the modern Indian thinkers woke up to the universal relevance of the French Revolution.

Tipu was almost obsessed with the idea of a grand alliance cutting across boundaries. He sent an ambassador to the Ottoman Emperor in Turkey. He also sent his special agents to Pune, Hyderabad, Delhi, Rajputana, Nepal, Kabul and also to Mauritius. He incited all the regional powers in India to rise against the British. Unfortunately, some of his correspondence with the regional chiefs was intercepted by the British, and Tipu’s plans of a grand alliance were nipped in the bud.

It was precisely this trait that set Tipu apart from the rest. All the regional rulers fought against the British, and also against each other. This was natural because they all needed to protect their territories from British encroachment. Tipu did not simply fight on the battlefront. He planned and prepared a strategy. He decided to take on the British not just with sword and the gun, but also through diplomatic manoeuvring.

Ahead of times
Tipu was also an able and keen administrator. As a ruler, he had a good sense of the welfare of his people. He initiated land reforms, a co-ordinated banking system, loan scheme for farmers, irrigation system, initiatives in horticulture, animal husbandry, sericulture, and commerce and manufacturing.

Unlike other rulers, Tipu was very keen on transforming life around him. He paid special attention to coinage and calendar, weights and measures, banking and finance, revenue and judiciary, army and navy and social customs and cultural affairs. He also understood the importance of both army and navy in building a strong empire. He built ships both for defence and commerce. His ships sailed as far as to Muscat in Oman where his government established a factory around 1785.

Such was Tipu, dynamic, fiercely brave, combative and tiger-like, but also, unlike other rulers of his times, futuristic and a visionary. His reign fell between two major epochs of India history — the decline of a pan-Indian Mughal empire and the emergence of a new imperialistic alien British empire.

Could Tipu have filled in the gap and provided the pan-Indian alternative to the Mughal empire? That might have prevented the takeover of India by British imperialism. Tipu was certainly capable of it. But he failed in providing the alternative. Why?

The explanation for this failure perhaps lies not so much in Tipu, but in the times in which he lived. There is no doubt that he had all the potentials of developing as an Indian nationalist. But he lived at a time when Indian nationalism was not much understood. None of his contemporaries understood it. None of them could tell the difference between rival neighbours and British imperialism. Tipu needed to build a grand alliance of different regional forces against the British, but he failed.

Tipu died on the battlefield fighting the British in the fourth Anglo-Mysore war. That certainly was a fitting end for the tiger of Mysore. With his death ended all possibilities of there being any credible alternative to the British. The British too knew that they had succeeded in removing the biggest obstacle to their imperialist designs.

After Tipu, 1857 was the next major challenge to British imperialism. That too was overcome because some parts of India did not support the rebellion and some actually opposed it. It became clear that British imperialism could not be overthrown until the people of India got united in a joint struggle against it. Tipu’s dream was fulfilled almost two centuries later, in 1947. So distant was 1947 from Tipu’s times that nobody thought of any possible connection between Tipu and Indian independence.

Tipu thus had the misfortune of not being properly understood twice-over. The most important facets of his personality went unnoticed in his life time, and also subsequently. His contemporaries did not notice his nationalism because they did not understand nationalism. But subsequently, in the 20th century, the distinctiveness of his nationalism went unnoticed, because nationalism, by that time, had become the dominant norm.

Every progressive political leader of the country was a nationalist. In such a climate, Tipu’s nationalism could hardly have evoked any special admiration, which it certainly deserved. Tipu’s USP, however, was that he was a nationalist at a time when there were no nationalists around. Tipu Sultan, therefore, needs to be remembered and reinstated as India’s first proto-nationalist.

History writing is concerned with what happened and not so much with what might have happened. Counterfactual history writing is generally not treated with much respect. However, the relevance of Tipu’s story lies not in what he actually did, but in what he might have done, had the constellation of various forces been different.

The story of Tipu Sultan has been unjustly forgotten precisely because it belongs to the realm of what did not happen, but could well have happened.

(The writer teaches history at the Ambedkar University, Delhi)

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