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.
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.
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.
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.
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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