Tipu Sultan: Hero or Villain: Resurgence of Debate

Ram Puniyani


We recently witnessed one of the worst cases of Horse trading, which led to the fall of Congress-JDU Government and coming of BJP Government in Karnataka. BJP after coming to power, in one of it first moves has not already decided to stop the state celebration of the Tipu Sultan, the Medieval king, it has also decided to hold anti-Tipu Rallies as Black day on November 10, the birth anniversary of Tipu. It seems the way medieval history has been constructed in diverse ways; the same person can be presented as hero for some communities and villain for the others. In case of Tipu the picture is much more complex. Earlier Tipu was looked up as a Hero even by Hindu nationalists, as presented in the series Bharat Bharti by RSS in 1970s. Same BJP leaders donned the Tipu attire and held the sword at a rally in 2010.

Our President Ramnath Kovind, coming again from RSS stock just a couple of years ago had gone on to praise Tipus’s bravery and his contribution in development of Missiles at his time. At the same time as communalism has taken roots in Karnataka, he is being presented as an anti Hindu tyrant. Lately while Congress through and projected Tipu to woo the Muslim votes, BJP did the parallel game of demonizing him for wooing the Hindu votes and the game continues. As such more we delve deeper into the narratives of this king and see the various aspects in an objective light, it becomes clear as to how communal interpretation of history has been used to ‘divide and rule’ by the British. Also the selective presentation of the events shows how the present communal forces have employed certain events to glorify or demonize the kings of this period due to their religion. As matters stand, these kings were primarily guided by the interests of maintain or expanding their empires for which they indulged in various things like temple destructions or patronizing of the same.

The additional factor in Tipu’s history is his attitude towards expanding East India Company. With the declining Mughal Empire the path for expansion of the company was becoming smoother. Tipu realized this and appealed to the Marathas, Raghunath Rao Patwadhan and Nizam not to collaborate with British. He did foresee the dangers of a foreign power deepening their rule in this land. As such the Marathas and Tipu, Tipu and Nizam had a rivalry in matters of controlling the areas they were ruling. One such step in this direction was the attack by Marathas on Tipu’s area. Patwardhan’s armies attacked Mysore in 1791 and plundered the Shringeri monastry. Interestingly it was Tipu who resorted this monastery to its glory by sending valuable gifts apart from other things. As a ruler he was the Chief trustee of the same monastery and used to address the Swamy of this monastery as Jagadguru (World Teacher). Tipu was also seeking his blessings for most of his military expeditions.

At the same time he was also instrumental in attacking attacking Varaha Temple. The reason was simple. The temple had Boar as the symbol of, which was icon of Mysore dynasty, which was defeated by him to come to power. So we see here Tipu patronizing Shringeri monastery and at the same time attacking Varaha Temple. In selective historiography one example will be used to paint him as anti Hindu, while these policies were totally guided by the interests of power. Same with Marathas desecrating the Shringeri monastery the target was not Hindu religion; target was the rival king Tipu.

There are other accounts about Tipu preferring Persian as his Court language and thereby ignoring Kannada. The fact is at that time Persian was the Court language of most of the kings of Sub continent. We recall Maharashtra’s Shivaji having Maulana Hiader Ali as his confidential secretary as the correspondence with other kings had to be in Persian. It is alleged that Tipu murdered hundreds of Brahmins who refused to be converted to Islam! This is totally false as one should recalls that it was Purnnaiya, a Brahmin, who was his Chief Advisor. These are deliberate lies spread by the British, who had been more vicious against Tipu, as Tipu was the one who stood rock solid against their expansion in India.

Similarly he is accused of targeting some Christian and Hindu communities. This is partly true. Some of these communities were targeted as they were helping the British, against the interests of Mysore state. On parallel ground he also targeted the Muslim Mahdavis, who were joining the East India Company forces as horsemen in British army. The consideration is again the arithmetic of power and not religion in any sense.

Communal forces have been using history as a powerful tool for their divisive politics, becomes clear once again. An interesting fact was brought forward by one of the researchers from Maharashtra Sarfarz Shaikh. In his book Sultan-E-Khudad he reproduces manifesto of Tipu Sultan. In this manifesto Tipu pledges that he will not discriminate his subjects on the grounds of religion, and he will protect his kingdom till his last breath. And that is precisely what he did, rather than compromising with the British he laid down his life fighting them as he was killed in the Fourth Anglo Mysore war in 1799.

Late Girish Karnad, the doyen of theater world, pointed out that had Tipu been a Hindu, he would have got the same honor and prestige, which Shivaji enjoys in Maharashtra. The folk songs on Tipu still reverberate in the villages of Mysore, praising him for his bravery.

We do need to overcome the ionization of heroes on the basis of religion. As such at one level I do feel most of our icons need to be drawn from our freedom movement, from those who contributed to ‘India as a nation in the making’. We do need to overcome the fascination of icons created by communal historiography.