If only the Marxist editors of NCERT textbooks had admitted that Tipu Sultan was a flawed human being, perhaps some of us would not have many problems. The absence of such honesty makes us say: Ay, there’s the rub! In the Marxist version of the earlier sarkari sycophants, Tipu was a patriot, a tolerant, secular ruler, a great freedom fighter and so on. The question of “flaws” simply did not arise.
Tipu’s apologist, the Australian historian Kate Brittlebank, points out that he was virtually unique in being an Indian ruler who died fighting the British and did not take a pension from them. There is a considerable verisimilitude in that statement. But that does not automatically make Tipu a patriot. He allied with the French and if the fortunes of war had been different, India may have come under the rule of the French East India Company—not exactly a sanguine prospect for Indian patriots.
Misplaced patriotism of Tipu Sultan
The ruler of Mysore corresponded with the Sultan of Turkey and was not averse to that exalted person becoming the suzerain of India. At least for many of us, the British Raj was a better happenstance than an Ottoman Raj and that is our view as patriots. The Ottomans are unlikely to have built railways or set up universities, institutions that incidentally came up in the Ottoman empire decades after they did in British India. Tipu wrote to Zaman Shah Durrani, the third king of Durrani Empire in Afghanistan, to help throw out the British in India. Some of us see this as evidence of religious bigotry against Hindu Marathas, not secular patriotism.
In emphasising his anti-British credentials, which are taken as self-evident proof of his patriotism, the Delhi-JNU-Aligarh-Rutgers-Australia group of historians seem to forget that the British were not the only enemies of Tipu. In the last siege of Seringapatam (or Srirangapatna, if you so prefer) in 1799, there were more Hyderabad Nizam’s soldiers in the army attacking Tipu’s than those of the East India Company. And I assume that no one can accuse the Nizam of being a Hindu bigot. There were a lot of Maratha soldiers too. In fact, more soldiers loyal to Indian rulers, Hindus and Muslims, fought Tipu than the soldiers of the East India Company, which the Marxists love to hate.
My mother’s family is of “old Mysorean” vintage and many of these tales are stories I have heard from my grandfather Madhava Rao and my many granduncles. Our narrative is that while Tipu’s father and ruler of Mysore Hyder Ali was a usurper, he nevertheless maintained the fiction that he was a deputy of our beloved Wodeyar kings. It is Tipu who started calling himself “Sultan” and who marginalised our traditional rulers completely. The dowager Wodeyar Maharani Lakshmammanni was in correspondence with the British who she saw as legitimate “restorers” of order in our land and who looked upon Tipu as the disloyal, treacherous and, need I say, unpatriotic traitor. The Marxist historians will doubtless dismiss the venerable lady as a Hindu bigot or in current parlance as a supremacist.
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Kodavas, Roman Catholics, Nairs, and the British
It is interesting to note how the Marxists of today are making light of the sufferings of Kodavas of Coorg (or Kodagu) and slyly portraying them as British agents. The fact is that most Kodavas hate Tipu who allegedly forcibly converted many of them. The descendants of this community of Kodava “converts” are still around.
Tipu was also brutal towards the Nair community of Travancore and Malabar. Again, forced conversions were the rule. And he followed it up with the destruction of temples. His worst depredations were against the Roman Catholic Christians of Mangalore. Forced marches, forced conversions, abductions of Mangalorean Christian women—all of these are documented and well-known. I wonder if the bishops of today’s crypto-Marxist Roman Church in India will even bother to talk about this. The leftist historians of the world dismiss Tipu’s cruelty to British prisoners, including the forcible dressing of young drummer boys as girls and the violation of their civil rights as “imperialist propaganda.” It definitely was propaganda. But let us not forget the kernel of truth in these accounts.
The so-called secular historians talk endlessly about Tipu’s support of the Hindu temples of Srirangapatna and Nanjangud and of the Sringeri Mutt. Many of these are documented and cannot and should not be denied. But if the historians are neutral, they should have the integrity and courage to state that some of this support stemmed from Tipu’s faith in these temples possessing unique abilities in the realm of astrological predictions. Tipu was a believer in astrology. I give him credit for that. Will secular historians do the same?
A brilliant tactician but a weak strategist
The other point that the Marxist historians make is that Purnaiah, who was a Brahmin and a minister under Hyder Ali and Tipu, was pro-Tipu. This is true. But the same historians could have and should have added that many Mysoreans believed and still do that Purnaiah was a traitor a few times over! I have a simpler explanation. Purnaiah was perhaps a nobody until Hyder spotted him and his entire rise, including becoming the Diwan of Mysore, was on account of Hyder and later Tipu. He was simply being loyal to his benefactors. Incidentally, in his later life, Purnaiah was equally loyal to the East India Company. Arthur Wellesley, who later became the Duke of Wellington, respected and admired Purnaiah. My grand-uncle Nagaraja Rao, a devout Brahmin himself, while talking about Purnaiah once told me that “Brahmins have a chameleon-like ability to adjust realistically to the powers that be.” That might sum up the Purnaiah story. Not loyalty or disloyalty, but realism.
Tipu called his government (which from our family’s point of view, was one of usurpers) the Sarkar-E-Khudadad, an Islamic Persian expression indicating that it was the government of God. Tipu deliberately introduced Persian into the land records of his dominion. Is it bigoted on our part to admire the British army officer Mark Cubbon who subsequently changed the rules and reintroduced Kannada and Marathi in the village maps? Who is the traitor? Who is the patriot? Who was benevolent? Who was malevolent? Important questions to ask. No wonder, even today, no political party wants to change the name of Cubbon Park in Bengaluru or remove his statue.
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The fact is Tipu was a brilliant military tactician and a weak military and political strategist. He allied with the French, who ended up on the losing side. He was bigoted and had megalomaniac pretensions of a Muslim conquest of India. Hence his outreach to the Turks and the Afghans. He was a parvenu local Muslim and anathema to the Nizam who advertised his Persian ancestry. The Marathas saw him as a thorn in their side. The Nawab of Carnatic Muhammad Ali Khan Wallajah hated Tipu and was his unforgiving enemy. Many of Tipu’s subjects longed for the return of Wodeyar rule.
Hyder Ali was a military and political genius but his son Tipu, lacked his good sense. He allowed a large coalition—the Marathas, the Nizam, the British, the Kodavas, the Maharaja of Travancore and the Nawab of Carnatic to get together against him. He relied on the French who were irresolute and incompetent; he appealed to Turks and Afghans who were otherwise preoccupied and uninterested. He was clever. But unlike his father, he was not intelligent. He lost.
In any event, he was not a great, shining patriot. He was flawed, like most of us are.
Jaithirth Rao is a retired businessperson who lives in Mumbai. Views are personal.