Fishing in troubled waters

Fishing in troubled waters

In view of the controversy regarding the Tipu Jayanti celebrations, here are a few historical facts about the Tiger of Mysore. Tipu, a controversial historical figure is an enigma and is a challenge to a modern day historian to unravel his legacy.

His father Hyder Ali was a mere soldier under Dalvai Nanjarajaiah, who was virtually ruling Mysore due to political instability and inefficiency of Krishnaraja Wadiyar II. Hyder made hay of this opportunity and usurped the throne in 1761 by completely ousting the Maharaja from his sovereign powers. This makes it evident that he came to power not by virtue of hereditary or by means of warfare but assumed kingship. Tipu succeeded as a natural heir and assumed sovereignty over the Mysore kingdom.

Tipu, no doubt is revered in Indian history as a great ruler and a brilliant statesman who roared against the British. But the reason for his uproar was not national in character since the period to which Tipu belonged was unaware of the ideas of nationalism and secularism.

These terms were non-existent in 18th century India and were popularised only during the beginning of 19th century with the establishment of Indian National Congress in 1885 which sowed the seeds of national awakening in India. Tipu’s agitation against the British was mainly to protect his kingdom and not to liberate India from British yoke.

The two Anglo-Mysore Wars that Tipu waged against the British substantiates this fact further. The third Anglo-Mysore War was caused by Tipu’s invasion in 1790 of Travancore which was an ally of the British. This made Lord Cornwallis to march towards Srirangapatna and defeat Tipu. The fourth Anglo-Mysore War fought by Tipu in 1799 was mainly due to the rejection of Subsidiary Alliance introduced by Lord Wellesley.

This meant that any princely state which entered into the agreement had to bear the expenses of the British army stationed in their kingdom and also a British Resident was to be appointed in the Indian State. Since Tipu refused to sign the alliance and subjugate himself to the British, Gen Harris led the army on Mysore.

Tipu, in order to defend his kingdom fought bravely against the British and died fighting on the battle field. True to his valour, he has been referred in history as ‘Tiger of Mysore’ and not ‘Tiger of India’. Eulogising Tipu as a great patriot and freedom fighter leads to unwanted controversies since our independence movement had not begun in early 1790s.

An analogy between Tipu Sultan and Rani Chennamma of Kittur (also in present day Karnataka) further authenticates the above view point. Chennamma too fought a heroic battle against the British when the latter tried to annex her kingdom through doctrine of lapse, introduced by Lord Dalhousie. Indeed, she was the first Indian woman to fight against the British much before Jhansi Lakshmi Bai and Hazrat Begum Mahal.

Both Chennamma and Tipu Sultan mainly opposed the British repressive policies to annex their states and fought against the British for their regions and not for a national cause. When our political leaders can highlight Tipu’s role in opposing the British and hail him as a freedom fighter, why Chennamma does not figure in the list?

Tipu’s personality can be studied as two sided — one depicting him as a just and secular king who took on the British and had a number of reforms to his credit. His reforms included every department — coinage, finance, trade commerce, agriculture, industries, maritime etc. He also made land grants to temples and there are records of his helping to restore the demolished ones.

One such popular temple is that of Sringeri and there are 30 reverential letters written by Tipu in Kannada to the then Sringeri pontiff who had appealed to the Sultan for help when the Marathas attacked Mysore and damaged the temple. He had great repugnance for the British and to expel them, he was ready to make alliance with any of their foes particularly the French.

Repressive policies

Yet, the same Tipu has other side who had adopted repressive policies elsewhere. This is substantiated in his attacks on Coorg, Mangalore and Malabar regions, his massacre of thousands of people and forcible conversion of many into Islamic fold. His brutalities and religious bigotry has dented his image among many even to this day. These facts of history cannot be brushed aside just as same of Tipu’s progressive measures are praiseworthy.

The present-day politicians have intruded into the life of a historical figure who is a bundle of contradictions and unnecessarily created communal tension in Karnataka. Controversial historical personalities should not become products of celebrations and they need to be freed from the clutches of contemporary politics. They should be left to academic study alone and be judged from the perspective of their time and circumstances and not measured by the yardsticks of today.

Any ruler’s legacy identified with a community is always a threat to peace and communal harmony. Looking at the list of birth anniversary celebrations in Indian calendar, one can find only those personalities mainly from spiritual background who have left behind them great ideals for posterity.

Be it Gandhi Jayanti, Mahaveer Jayanti, Basava Jayanti, Valmiki Jayanti or Kanakadasa Jayanti — all these great historical figures never encountered controversies or clashes among different factions when the government chose to celebrate their birthdays because their lives and preachings set examples of noble values for mankind to remember through the ages.

Incidentally, the decision of Karnataka government to celebrate Tipu Jayanti becomes a question hour to be debated by many as to what was the need to celebrate when Tipu’s legacy has been a matter of controversy and the is government trying to fish in troubled waters.

(The writer is with the Department of History, St Claret Pre-University College, Bengaluru)
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