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BJP and Congress use Tipu Sultan for politics but are shockingly ignorant of his history

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Tipu Sultan is simply another useful historical figure onto whom contemporary political prejudices can be projected.

The month of November has become more malignant and politically heated in Karnataka. Once it used to be the month of Rajyotsava, the state founding day celebrations, benign discourses on the past greatness of Kannada or lamentations over the loss of its eminence in an increasingly globalised world. Since 2015, the spectre of Tipu Sultan looms large over the old Mysuru region, which he ruled, and neighbouring Coorg, Mangalore and Malabar where his political opponents were cruelly dealt with.

Tipu Sultan’s birthday celebration as a state-sponsored event has turned into an ideological battle between the secular Left and the Hindu Right. Whether the historical Tipu conforms to how he is projected in this battle hasn’t really been relevant. He is simply another useful historical figure onto whom contemporary political prejudices can be projected.

The actual event doesn’t matter. Chief minister H.D. Kumaraswamy has decided to skip the celebrations, citing health reasons. He needs his rest. Lest we forget, Kumaraswamy had opposed Tipu Jayanti in the past. His deputy, G. Parameshwara, will be the chief guest at a ceremony which will probably not be held in the Banquet Hall of the Vidhana Soudha, but at the nearby Ravindra Kalakshetra auditorium. Optics do matter.

Also read: Tipu Jayanti goes to Karnataka HC: Sabarimala-style flashpoint or real historical debate?

When the Siddaramaiah government decided to initiate Tipu Jayanti celebrations in 2015, it simply extended to Muslims what had by then become a bipartisan practice: Of celebrating birthdays of iconic cultural heroes of numerically large, and therefore, electorally significant caste or religious groups. In fact, the previous BJP government had instituted Jayanti celebrations of Valmiki (Parivara-Nayaka caste), Basavanna (Lingayats) and Kanakadasa (Kuruba). State holidays were also declared on these days.

Not to be left behind, the Siddaramaiah government also launched celebrations of Krishna Janmashtami (Golla/Yadava caste) and Vishwakarma Jayanti. Competitive casteism has found its place in public life. This was in addition to celebrating the birthdays of Dr Ambedkar (Dalit) and poet Kuvempu (Vokkaliga). On each of these days, the state administration organises a public procession and a lecture, in which ministers and officials participate. This takes place at the state secretariat in Bengaluru and district centres.

While none of these above-mentioned choices was controversial, picking an icon for Muslims has been tricky. The BJP, for whom Tipu is the paradigmatic ‘bad Muslim’, has consistently opposed celebrating his birthday. As an alternative, it has often proposed the 19th century Kannada saint poet, Shishunala Sharifa. A disciple of Govinda Bhatta, an Advaitin teacher, Sharifa is known for his mystical philosophical poems.

Objections to Tipu Sultan are many. His critics argue that Tipu and his father Hyder Ali were illegitimate usurpers, who snatched political power from the Wodeyar kings of Mysuru. They further characterise him as a cruel, religious bigot, who forcibly converted tens of thousands in Coorg, Mangalore and Malabar regions; he is accused of slaughtering those who refused to convert to Islam. Tipu Sultan is also projected as an opponent of Kannada, since he used Persian as the administrative language. Even his patronage of Hindu temples is dismissed as a strategic measure rather than something borne out of genuine respect for other religions. These arguments have been made forcefully by eminent Kannada writer S.L. Bhyrappa and journalist-turned-politician, Pratap Simha, who represents the Mysore-Coorg constituency in Lok Sabha.

Also read: Karnataka BJP plans protests on Tipu Jayanti to call out Congress-JD(S) ‘double standards’

Tipu’s critics aren’t factually incorrect. But nuance has no place in their formulations. Tipu did resort to conversion and even slaughtering of his opponents in newly conquered regions or in areas where he encountered armed resistance. Rarely did he deploy such strategies in the heartland of his kingdom. On the contrary, he often made large gifts to temples in Sringeri and several other places in his kingdom. Some of these temples were, in fact, looted by Maratha generals during the regime of Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan. A more careful reading of the historical evidence suggests that Tipu’s actions were perhaps largely motivated by political considerations than religious ones. Moreover, both father and son were extremely capable generals and efficient administrators. In the 18th century political context, their assumption of political authority in Mysuru was no different than how power was captured by their contemporaries like the Marathas, and hence, no less legitimate.

Tipu advocates too are susceptible to losing sight of nuance, and consequently, making crude historical formulations. In their accounts, Tipu is a secular, nationalist, freedom fighter. Surely, Hyder and Tipu were among the most formidable opponents that the British Empire faced in the 18th century. But that doesn’t make them either secular or anti-colonial nationalists. Both these categories appear anachronistic and not especially useful for a discussion of 18th-century Indian politics.

Absent in this entire discussion is a willingness to see Tipu Sultan as an 18th-century political figure. This is a charge both sides are guilty of. What further vitiates public discourse is the lack of credible historical scholarship on Hyder and Tipu. Australian historian Kate Brittlebank is perhaps the only professional historian to have written monographs on Tipu. Apart from her writings, the interested reader might find an occasional journal article or a book chapter. Scholarship in Indian languages, especially in Kannada and Urdu, too isn’t impressive qualitatively. So, our historical understanding of late 18th century Mysuru politics is limited.

Also read: Don’t give modern character certificates to rulers like Khilji or Tipu

This facilitates the November heat of the political farce over Tipu. Charges are traded. PILs are filed in the Karnataka High Court, seeking a stay on the celebration of Tipu Jayanti. The High Court will refuse to grant a stay but will ask the state government to maintain law and order. Media wars are waged in television studios and newspapers. BJP’s central ministers and MPs warn the state administration not to print their names in any Tipu Jayanti programme. State ministers insist that protocol dictates the inclusion of the names of all peoples’ representatives, with no exception. It appears both sides delight in re-enacting the same ritual every year.

Prithvi Datta Chandra Shobhi is a Mysuru-based social historian and political commentator. 

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  1. Mr.Jha, your biases are very apparent…go first bring authentic historical accounts to substantiate your coloured view.No less a person than Bhaghwan S.Gidwani ( who incidentally was a VHP ideologue) had researched about Tipu Sultan in his book.

  2. Dear writer, which side do you belong? India maintained her ideals even in enforced slavery, but what has happened to us in last 70 years that we are celebrating a terroris, murder and rapist? He gave donations to temples, are you sure, the few donations were not aimed to be used as spiked cookies so he could slit your throat later? Freedom fighter? For whome? For Bharat or for Islamistaan of his dreams for which any crime he was ready to commit?

  3. “A more careful reading of the historical evidence suggests that Tipu’s actions were perhaps largely motivated by political considerations than religious ones.”

    Tipu was fighting Marathas, Nizam & British. Secular Tipu did not show same “Political raher than religious considerations” when he attacked Nizam. He did not destroy any Mosques in Hyderabad.

    Do secus think other Indians are of as low on IQ as they are?

  4. Sensible. But Tippu was more communal than described above. He switched to Persian as the state administrative language from Kannada. He renamed many places in Karnataka eg: Sakaleshpurar to Manjarabad. Actually, he changed more than 40 cities and place names to an Islamic one. His atrocities outside of the old Mysore areas shows he had no vision of a larger Indian state. So he definitely was not a freedom fighter.
    Had the government of Karnataka decided to celebrate the birthday of Tippu’s father, Hyder Ali, it would have been much easier to defend. Hyder Ali continued the old Mysore coinage introduced by the Wodeyars (Tipu shifted over to coinages with Persian/Islamic imprints).

    • Nothing is defensible. Even Hyder ali cannot be given any historical accolades just because he was easier that Tipu on Hindu sentiments. He was easier because he could not afford to be a crude tyrant at that stage. At his time it was essential to enter and spread his wings stealthily. An usrper declares his intentions at an opportune time. Considering the low power Hyder had, he could not have realised his dream of enforcing Islamic rule if he had opened his cards too soon. He played his game well, but it was dishonest and sinister. India, can admire his and Tipus bravery and intelligence, yet India cannot approve their acts as each of their acts plans were insanely fanatic and extremely cruel and abusive for Hindus and other non Muslims. Any act of goodness towards Wodeyar or temples was an act of deception.

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