Tipu's legacy: politics and misreading

By relegating Tipu Sultan to merely the identity of a Muslim ruler, we fail to do him justice.

The Siddaramaiah government’s decision to continue celebrating Tipu Jayanti — the birth anniversary of Tipu Sultan, the 18th century ruler of Mysore who fought four wars against the British colonisers and died on the battlefield fighting the last in 1799 — this year, too, has resulted in ideological mudslinging.

In 2015, two people died in protests over the state-sponsored commemoration. This year again, controversy has once again reared its ugly head. The BJP’s recently inducted Union minister Ananth Kumar Hegde — himself previously charged with promoting communal enmity — referred to Tipu Sultan as a “brutal killer, wretched fanatic and mass rapist”, berating the Congress’s decision to even invite him to the celebration.

Such a charged political debate behind this polarising icon begs the question: does an objective reading of history reveal that Tipu Sultan was indeed our nation’s ‘first freedom fighter’ or just another ‘brutal killer’?

Tipu, a trailblazer in the use of military rockets, lunisolar calendars, land revenue systems, compensation of sepoys, etc., indeed fought the British to keep this part of India free from them until his death in Srirangapatna in 1799. The land reforms he implemented by appropriating property from landowners, upper castes and mutts and distributing it to the Shudras was revolutionary.

A follower of the Chisti/Bande Nawaz tradition of Sufism, Tipu provided annual grants to 156 temples, including the Sringeri Mutt, where he reinstalled the holy idol and recommenced its worship after the Hindu Maratha army demolished the mutt. Other Hindu places of worship that Tipu helped uplift include Nanjangud, Melkote, Kanchi, Kalale, Devanahalli and several others. Even Mysore’s first-ever church was constructed under Tipu’s patronage.

Still, his ‘checkered’ past —which many historians argue to be flames fuelled by British propaganda — due to alleged religiously-targeted violence and a conversionary zeal unleashed on the Coorgis of Kodagu and Catholics of Dakshina Kannada has become the subject of much political disagreement. To be fair, thousands were converted and killed in pursuit of dominance; but this was done in the midst of wars, and according to ‘yuddha neethi’ of the 17th and 18th centuries (and not in Old Mysore).

The Coorgis rebelled against Tipu militarily, while the Catholics were pro-British adversaries. His actions were not driven by a communal agenda, although the violence cannot be condoned. Tipu also killed Muslims, such as the Mapilas. Remember, the wars of the 18th century were fought between rival kingdoms, not religious communities. Hence, Tipu sought territorial control and revenue aggrandisement, religious indoctrination was incidental.

Many pro-Kannada groups have also voiced concerns over Tipu as he altered local names from Kannada and introduced Persian lexicon into administration. Tipu, although fluent in Kannada, had internationalist inclinations, identifying himself with the contemporary American and French revolutions. Had his actions been more pro-Kannada, they would have added to his modern-day regional credibility, but including Farsi only made him more of an internationalist, but not any less ‘of Karnataka.’

It may be a good idea to remember other widely-acceptable Muslim rulers of Karnataka and not limit ourselves to only Tipu. Try Ibrahim Adil Shah II — the ‘Jagadguru Badshah’ who expanded his kingdom from Bijapur down to Mysore nearly two centuries before Tipu. Ibrahim II’s dream was to unite Hindus and Muslims, Sunnis and Shias through music.

He promoted syncretism by simultaneously praising Ganesha and Saraswati as well as the Sufi saint Hazrat Banda Nawaz and erecting a temple in the palace of his musical city. A speaker of Kannada, Marathi, Deccani and Urdu, Ibrahim II is a role model for secular unity over imperial violence who should be highlighted by leaders of all parties.

Yet, one most wonder whether such birthday commemorations are merely meant to push a political party agenda and consolidate vote banks, rather than working towards building a better society. Other jayantis, such as of Basava and Valmiki are driven by caste arithmetic. Tipu’s vision was admirable, but the tokenism of jayanti cannot make up for the dire need for economic, educational, health and other reforms that Muslims, and many other communities, need. Muslims lag behind everyone except the Dalits in several state and national indices of development.

It’s not surprising that Tipu Sultan, who lived in a diverse and contentious political climate two and a half centuries ago, has been misjudged by varying political motivations today. To view his persona in today’s context is unfair since Tipu and the secular ‘idea of India’ are removed from each other by nearly two centuries.

But one thing is for sure: the ‘Tiger of Mysore’ had a strategic mind and sought regional control, fighting wars against those of all religious persuasions and the British colonisers. Today, by relegating Tipu to merely the identity of a Muslim ruler, we fail to do justice by him. But by recognising him as an innovative figure of the 18th century, we may.

(The writer is an actor and activist)

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