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Fictional characters or Tipu Sultan’s killers? In push for Vokkaliga votes, BJP hails Uri-Nanje Gowda

Tipu Sultan's life is a hot topic in poll-bound Karnataka, and now his death is up for debate, with BJP arguing 2 Vokkaliga warriors killed him. But move seems to be backfiring.

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Bengaluru: Most history books say that the 18th-century Mysore ruler Tipu Sultan died fighting the British, but the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Karnataka is insisting that it was actually two Vokkaliga chieftains, Uri Gowda and Nanje Gowda, who killed him over two centuries ago.

Historians have questioned whether these warriors existed at all, but the claims have continued nonetheless.

Political analysts believe that BJP leaders are pushing the narrative as part of a campaign to win the support of the influential Vokkaliga community, but the strategy has already had some misfires.

“Given the affinity of Mandya-Mysore region with Tipu Sultan, it (BJP) has invented two fictional characters of Vokkaliga chieftains who allegedly killed Tipu Sultan. However, the strategy seems to have backfired so far because people in the region seem to have their own understanding about the final moments of Tipu Sultan,” said A. Narayana, a political analyst and faculty member at Azim Premji University in Bengaluru.

“In the absence of credible evidence, the people are not ready to accept the BJP’s version of history,” he added.

With the state expected to vote in May, Tipu Sultan has been frequently invoked by the BJP, but the controversial ‘theory’ about his killers is a relatively new development. The claims in question have come from several top Karnataka leaders.

BJP national general secretary C.T. Ravi, for instance, has said that a team is busy collecting “evidence” about Uri Gowda and Nanje Gowda, while Union minister of state Shobha Karandlaje has maintained that proof of the warriors’ existence already lies in plays and ballads. State higher education minister Dr C.N. Ashwath Narayan and excise minister K. Gopalaiah are also vocal proponents of this idea.

Historians, however, have raised questions about the validity of these claims. There have been allegations, too, that some of the representational images of Uri Gowda and Nanje Gowda shared by BJP leaders are actually derived from depictions of the Maruthu Pandiyar rulers of the Sivaganga kingdom who fought the British and were publicly hanged for their actions in 1801.

Congress supporters are also sharing satirical memes depicting the imagined Aadhaar cards of Uri and Nanje Gowda, citing their place of birth as the BJP office in Bengaluru.

Even a section of leaders within the BJP has refused to endorse this version of history.

“I definitely don’t know who Uri Gowda and Nanje Gowda are. I know former PM Deve Gowda, Range Gowda, Nanje Gowda (not the same person)…. I haven’t read this (about Uri Gowda and Nanje Gowda) in history (books),” Dr K. Sudhakar, Karnataka’s health minister, said Tuesday.

The BJP’s rhetoric has received pushback from an influential Vokkaliga religious leader as well.

Sri Nirmalanandanatha Swamiji, the head of the Adichunchanagiri Matha, the spiritual headquarters of the Vokkaliga community, reportedly “summoned” state horticulture minister and filmmaker Munirathna Monday, telling him to drop the idea of making a movie about Uri and Nanje Gowda. The minister is said to have paid heed.

Vokkaliga spiritual leader Sri Nirmalanandanatha Swamiji with BJP state minister Munirathna | Twitter/@MunirathnaMLA

Nirmalanandanatha also spoke out against making historical claims without proper research Monday.

“Today there are many things that need to be done for the state and our community. By setting them aside and keeping this issue in front and creating this confusion is not correct,” Nirmalanandanatha said. “To imagine something and write is a novel. And to write something based on research documents and laws empowers future generations,” he added.

Nevertheless, while the plan to make a film on Uri-Nanje Gowda may have been dropped for now, some BJP leaders are doubling down, including Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai.

When asked by reporters Tuesday if the controversy would be a setback for the BJP, Bommai said that there was no question. “When research happens and the day the truth comes out, we will get victory,” he added.

Also read: Tipu Sultan is back & reigning over Karnataka politics. Why BJP has resurrected him

Who killed Tipu Sultan? History vs ‘story’

While debates have long raged about what kind of ruler Tipu Sultan was — benevolent or not, tolerant or not — historians generally concur on some broad points.

Tipu Sultan was born in Devanhalli in 1750. He was the son of Hyder Ali, a military commander who worked for Mysore’s Wodeyar rulers before seizing power from them. Tipu eventually took over the reins from his father and died in 1799 while fighting the British in the Fourth Anglo-Mysore war. These at least are the accepted ‘facts’ about his life and death, widely taught in schools.

A portrait of Tipu Sultan | Commons
A portrait of Tipu Sultan | Commons

However, some BJP leaders have attributed Tipu Sultan’s death to what are said to be fictional characters rather than historical figures.

Union minister of state Shobha Karandlaje, who is a member of the BJP’s campaign committee and convenor of the election management panel, has been an unrelenting proponent of the theory that two Vokkaliga chieftains killed Tipu Sultan.

Last Saturday, she told reporters that a book called Suvarna Mandya by eminent Kannada writer D. Javaregowda had references to Uri Gowda and Nanje Gowda.

Then, when asked about an LPG price hike at a press conference this Sunday, she changed the subject.

“I’ve come to speak about Uri Gowda and Nanje Gowda today. I’ll talk about LPG price hike some other day,” she told mediapersons.

C.T. Ravi, too, has referred to Suvarna Mandya to back his claims about Uri-Nanje Gowda.

“That they are historical personalities has been ascertained 30 years ago in the book Suvarna Mandya,” he told reporters Wednesday.

“Whether they killed Tipu or not… (history) says that unknown persons killed Tipu and we are collecting all information regarding this and after gathering all this, we will discuss with the pontiff (Sri Nirmalanandanatha),” he added.

Historians disagree with the BJP’s line of arguments.

“(Suvarna Mandya) is not a book, but a souvenir brought out to celebrate the 50 years of the creation of Mandya as a district. In that there is a mention of these two characters (Uri Gowda and Nanje Gowda) but nothing to do with them killing Tipu Sultan,” said Narasimiah (he goes by his first name), a Bengaluru-based historian and retired professor, speaking to The Print.

He added that Tipu Sultan was betrayed by his own finance minister Mir Sadiq, who colluded with the British East India Company and provided them with key information about the ruler’s military strategies and plans. This, he said, helped the British to defeat and kill Tipu Sultan in the Fourth Anglo-Mysore War.

BJP’s Vokkaliga conundrum

The BJP has traditionally relied on the dominant Lingayat community for electoral support in Karnataka, but it has been seeking to broaden its voter base. The party has been especially keen to tap into the Vokkaliga vote-bank, which is generally understood to back the H.D. Deve Gowda-led JD(S).

On 25 March, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be visiting Chikkaballapura, which borders Bengaluru and counts Devanahalli as one of its constituencies. Devanahalli is the birthplace of Tipu Sultan and is an area of interest for the BJP as it is a reserved seat with a significant Vokkaliga population.

However, so far, the Basavaraj Bommai-led government has been having a spot of trouble with its caste calculations.

A case in point is the government’s decision to include the Lingayat and Vokkaliga communities in two newly created categories in the backward classes list.

The government had dismantled the 3A and 3B reservation divisions and replaced them with two new subcategories under Category 2, which currently grants reservation for OBCs (2A) and minorities (2B), in order to make room for Vokkaligas and Lingayats.

The idea was that this would win the support of these two dominant caste groups ahead of the elections, but instead there were rumblings about a lack of clarity on the new categories and the reservation benefits they’d bring.

Vokkaligas are currently under the “3A category”, which brings with it 4 per cent reservation. The community had demanded that this be increased to 12 per cent. Under the newly created category of 2C and 2D, they are likely to get an additional 2-3 per cent that will be diverted from the economically weaker section (EWS) quota.

The Veerashaiva Lingayats, who were also meant to benefit from this decision, have rejected this ‘solution’.  The Karnataka High Court has put a stay on the entire reclassification.

Another gap is the BJP’s lack of prominent Vokkaliga leaders.

Since 2008, when it first formed a government on its own in Karnataka, until now, the BJP has had three Lingayat CMs — B.S. Yediyurappa, Jagadish Shettar, Bommai — but just one Vokkaliga, D.V. Sadananda Gowda.

While leaders such as revenue minister R. Ashoka, C.T. Ravi, C.N. Ashwath Narayan, Shobha Karandlaje, and Dr K. Sudhakar, among others, want to be seen as the Vokkaliga face in the BJP, the party still has only a limited presence in the Old Mysuru region.

In February, CM Bommai removed R. Ashoka as the in-charge minister for Mandya, a prominent district in the region, in the wake of protests against him.

Out of seven assembly constituencies in Mandya, the JD(S) won all in 2018 but one legislator defected to the BJP, giving the party its first ever representation in the Vokkaliga heartland.

Even in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the BJP decided to back the independent candidature of  Sumalatha Ambareesh, wife of Kannada cinema icon Ambareesh, as it reportedly had no leaders willing to contest against the might of the JD(S) in these parts.

“Having failed to make its Hindutva agenda find general acceptance across the state, the BJP is adopting a communal mobilisation strategy for each region,” Narayana claimed.

He added that even though the BJP had no evidence at its disposal about Uri Gowda and Nanje Gowda, the two names were unlikely to fade out just yet.

“They repeat the lies, hoping that the lies repeated unendingly will eventually be accepted as truth,” he alleged.

(Edited by Asavari Singh)

Also read: Chaos, infighting, bid for balance — BJP’s big Yediyurappa dilemma in Karnataka


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