The afterlives of Tipu Sultan

The afterlives of Tipu Sultan

Pasts Without Prejudice

Janaki Nair believes historical truth can be stranger than fiction, but still enjoys hearing out tellers of tall tales

Do Indians any longer have the civilizational maturity to develop and understand a non-sectarian account of sectarian strife? The Supreme Court’s judgment in the Ayodhya case, and the audacious ‘enactment’ of the illegal wrecking of the Babri Masjid by young people in Mangaluru, encouraged by people running the school, are ominous signs. Now, Karnataka textbooks have narrowly squeaked past a scrubbing of any reference to Tipu Sultan.

How have we reached here? We are no strangers to textbook controversies, which have been with us as long as the textbook itself (i.e. since the mid-19th century, when the British developed a pretty thin skin on behalf of those who complained about ‘hurt sentiments’). Representative democracy has only multiplied the challenges. How do we respond creatively and responsibly?

Tipu Sultan has become the Mysore ruler whom many people love to hate. When a proposal was made in 2012 to institute a university in his memory, the respected Kannada scholar Chidanandamurthy, opposed it. He produced mula dakhalegalalli hudugidda Tipu, a short anthology of excerpts from both ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ sources, with the twin objective of convincing readers that Tipu was a religious bigot, a tyrant who converted the people of Mangalore, Coorg and Malabar, and also to undermine his well-known generosities to the temples and mathas of Karnataka (as driven by political imperatives, done by his inferiors, and therefore not signs of any ‘secular’ policy!).

The book, single-minded in purpose, and tediously repetitive, is also replete with errors. Let me just cite two: Chi Mu denies Tipu the title ‘Sultan’ (from the title onwards!), which he claims Tipu gave himself. Wrong. Tipu’s name reflects the long lineage of dervish-cum-land management ancestors, the name reflecting part Sufi servitor (i.e. of Tipu Mastan Aulia of Arcot) and part military adventurer. Elsewhere, Chi Mu denies that conversions were only of Tipu Sultan’s opponents, going on to praise the British because they only punished freedom fighters and not religious opponents! Are they separable? When the British reclaimed Delhi in 1857, not only was the Jama Masjid desecrated, but Muslims were not allowed entry to the city for several years after.

One could go on. The problem with the visceral attacks on Tipu’s memory is that they repeat for the most part what colonial authors said about their indefatigable foe. Even when Chi Mu cites the Lavanies that recall Tipu Sultan – quite favourably, even according to Prof Lakkappa Gowda, the folklore specialist – he focuses on those parts that serve his purpose.

Haider and Tipu occupy 11 paras of the Std 7 textbook and about 22 paras in Std X (largely on the four Mysore Wars). Can this material help 12-15-year-olds to think historically? Can they instead be guided to ask and answer open-ended questions: Why was he called a tyrant by the British to begin with, and why are people of some areas today opposed to his memory? Why was he, nevertheless, included as an emblem of the anti-colonial struggle in the illustrations of the 18th century in the Indian Constitution? Were religious and political authority separable in the 18th century? Finally: What happens to historical memories and why?

Tipu Sultan is an excellent figure with which to begin such a pedagogy. I will end with how historical memories can be reshaped even within one’s lifetime. In the Mathrubhumi newspaper of March 15, 1923, a Congress leader, K Madhavan Nair, wrote:

I had a chance to see Srirangapatna, which is hugged by the tributaries of the pure and beautiful river Kaveri. As soon as I stepped out of the railway station, I saw a long wall which was decorated with very tall towers…inside the ruins of the famous fort of Tipu Sultan. Though the structures appeared like a Hindu temple, it took some time for me to believe that it is indeed a Hindu temple. Tipu, who demolished idols and temples, Tipu, who was known as the wrecker of Hindu religion, Tipu, who worked hard to annihilate the Hindu race of Malabar, how could there be a Hindu temple in the vicinity of Tipu’s palace? Could that be a mosque in the shape of a Hindu temple? Though I was aware that Tipu had not harmed the Hindus of Mysore, I never imagined a temple beside his palace.

Correcting long-held prejudices may not be this easy. Despite the copious writings of professional historians of Tipu Sultan (Mohibbul Hasan, Asok Sen, Kate Brittlebank, Michael Sorocoe, KT Shaheen, CK Kareem, IG Khan, Barun De) and dedicated non-professionals (Roddam Narasimha, Nidhin Olikara, Mohd. Moienuddin), none are cited in either Chi Mu or the school textbooks. Can this rich scholarship find its way into the popular consciousness and into the textbooks?

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