Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan
Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan | Asad Zaidi/Bloomberg
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Imran Khan’s speech Thursday in the Pakistan Parliament was fascinating for two reasons: The promise to release Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman and his invocation of Tipu Sultan and Bahadur Shah Zafar.

Khan’s choice of characters has deep roots in the past. Having historically characterised India as effeminate, Pakistani nationalism has the burden of explaining any Indian aggressive military action to its domestic audience. The IAF Balakot strikes was one such situation.

In his speech, Imran talked about how Pakistan should and would respond. In addition to the usual platitudes, he brought up an interesting analogy. Citing two historical figures, Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal emperor, and Tipu Sultan, the much vilified 18th century king of Mysore, Imran Khan upheld the latter as his role model.

Bahadur Shah Zafar — the caged bird

Bahadur Shah Zafar assumed the Mughal throne in 1837. He was 62-years-old. Zafar was deposed in 1857 during the Sepoy Mutiny, and died in British captivity in Rangoon (now Yangon) five years later at the age of 87. During his 20-year regime, Zafar didn’t even have effective control over Delhi itself. In fact, Thomas Metcalfe, the British Resident in Delhi, controlled much of Zafar’s daily life and wouldn’t allow the emperor to meet with any nobleman from outside Delhi without his permission.

A portrait of Bahadur Shah Zafar | Commons

Also read: Abhinandan’s return: Has Imran Khan bought temporary peace or must he do more to end terror?

In life and death, Zafar remained a caged bird. While weak and helpless politically, Zafar was nevertheless a supremely accomplished person. As historian William Dalrymple points out, Zafar was a calligrapher, Sufi, theologian, patron of artists and writers, creator of gardens and a very serious mystical poet. Dalrymple shows how Zafar ‘sublimated his feelings of profound frustration and imprisonment’ in his ghazals.

Even when Zafar got an opportunity to lead an insurrection, he was only a titular head of the sepoys and was in fact horrified by their actions. Whatever his other accomplishments may have been, that is not the leadership Pakistan’s PM Imran Khan wants to emulate.

Tipu Sultan absent in Pakistan

Imran’s invocation of Tipu Sultan is perhaps even more interesting. Despite the notoriety Tipu obtained soon after his death in 1799, particularly due to his alleged cruel treatment of English prisoners, and in more recent times in India, he remains a regional figure. located in the distant south in Mysore, Tipu isn’t connected to Pakistani politics or nationalism in any substantive way. Neither Tipu’s geopolitical significance in the late 18th century global politics nor his success in building a modern military fiscal state appears to have been great attractions to Pakistani nationalism thus far.

An engraving of Tipu Sultan by W. Ridley, published in European Magazine, 1800 | Getty
An engraving of Tipu Sultan by W. Ridley, published in European Magazine, 1800 | Getty

In contrast, Pakistani historiography has found Muhammad bin Qasim (695-715 AD), the young Umayyad general sent to conquer Sindh by the Caliph, as its central character in its nationalist origin narratives. As historian Manan Ahmed persuasively argues, Pakistani nationalist histories and popular accounts look to the Arab conquest of Sindh as the nation’s origin story. Tipu’s presence in these accounts is marginal, at best.

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

Imran Khan’s leadership model

This isn’t the first time Imran Khan evoked Tipu Sultan. In many past references, Khan appeared to reflect more on his thus far unsuccessful political career in almost tragic overtones. For instance, he talked about how he would prefer to fight like Tipu Sultan, the ‘Tiger of Mysore’, even if his future is doomed.

In this light, Tipu Sultan’s appeal for Imran Khan seems to be a more personal and idiosyncratic one. His appropriation of Tipu Sultan as a warrior hero might have appealed to his audience inside Parliament. However, is this the leadership model Khan himself has fostered in his life?

Imran Khan can truly claim to have held two of the toughest jobs in South Asia: the prime ministership of Pakistan and the captaincy of the Pakistani cricket team. His captaincy has often been celebrated as exemplary and a model worthy of academic research. In contrast, his two-decade-long political career had been unremarkable until he fortuitously became the prime minister.

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

Someday we look forward to another speech from the Pakistani prime minister on how Tipu Sultan fits into his worldview.

How might Imran Khan’s speech play in Karnataka, Tipu’s homeland? As the campaign rhetoric heats up, BJP state chief and former chief minister Yeddyurappa and his party will not hesitate to call any Congress or JD(S) leader referring to Tipu Sultan a Pakistani. Not that Imran Khan is worried about that prospect.

The author is a social historian and political commentator. He teaches history at the Karnataka State Open University, Mysore.

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9 Comments Share Your Views


  1. Tipu sultan will remain a hero in India as well. I am just disappointed how sanghis are degrading him since some time now.

  2. The last example of how IK’s preference of Tipu Sultan R.A. will play out is the one I am stuck at. It is truly an appalling state of politics in this country of great intellectuals.. When will we ever get politicians who debate reasonably?

  3. The reference to Tipu Sultan was actually an acknowledgement that Pakistan can be outgunned by India. However, given our current military and nuclear capabilities, Pakistan will never surrender. This is really a much more riskier proposition for India. Pakistan’s economy is already in the toilet. Can India really afford an all out war with Pakistan? Pakistan will loose but but do you really want to take that chance? India has a difficult time containing Kashmir. How do you expect it to contain a full onslaught?

    I would encourage Indians to reflect on what happened recently. Considering all the investments flowing to Pakistan, why on earth would we try to stage an attack that won’t change any of the Kashmir calculus. We have nothing to gain. This smells a lot like an inside job and the positive media coverage of Modi so close to an election raises a lot of questions.

    Indian sensationalism journalism is appalling and I hope that the public is smarter than this.

  4. In any case this has been proven that for all role models Pakistan has to look towards India as they have no historical roots

  5. Sorry you are wrong sir. We learn about Tipu sultan and battle of Masyure through our school and college books. We have so much about Tipu sultan even my grandfather know about him.

  6. You need to read more about IK’s political career…His 20 year struggle is full of wins & achievements…It’s silly to believe that he just made it to the office coz the Army picked him up suddenly…nope…IK wouldve won alot many seats even in the last election had it not been for massive rigging by the opposition with the help of establishment…
    IK has very intelligently, & with the patience of a saint, made his way to the top…
    Most of u would not understand hus driving force as most of u cannot think beyond mere opticals…but IKs will remains a change for his ppl…There is no other reason, no other possible attraction for a man of his achievements & grandeur to be doing what he is doing!…


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