Tipu Sultan Row


By Syed Ali Mujtaba

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The birth anniversary celebrations of the 18th century ruler of Mysore, Tipu Sultan, by the Karnataka Government have distressingly got embroiled in an unsavoury controversy. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) is again flexing its muscles, this time against the Government’s decision calling the celebrations as ‘glorification of a tyrant ruler’. Regrettably, the event has taken a communal turn following several groups turning violent during the State-wide protests calling against the celebrations.


Worse, the issue flared up soon after noted actor-cum-playwright Girish Karnad commented that Tipu would have enjoyed the status of Shivaji had he been a Hindu and suggested that Bengaluru’s international airport be named after Tipu. Karnad had earlier written a play titled ‘Dreams of Tipu Sultan’ to celebrate the bicentenary of his death in 2000. His comments sparked an outrage from the Hindu right wing forces. He received a death threat that warned the he “would meet the same end” as that of the slain scholar MM Kalburgi.

It is a pity that the mere expression of a view on a historical figure can generate spiralling social reactions. This is because the Hindu right wing forces like to target Tipu Sultan’s secular image dubbing him as a Muslim bigot. This view is now getting spilled on to the streets. There are certain forces who are stoking the fire against him for political gains and an atmosphere of hatred is being built against him.

A fresh narrative on Tipu Sultan is gaining currency painting him as an Islamic ‘Jihadist’. The Sangh Parivar, has started propagating the 18th century ruler of Mysore as “intolerant” who persecuted Hindus and converted people to Islam. They allege that Tipu hanged 700 Melkote Iyengars, killed or converted the people of Coorg region to Islam and unleashed a reign of terror on the Mangalorean Catholics and destroyed their churches. Further, they allege that Tipu tried to exterminate the Nairs of Wyanad and Malabar and so on and so forth…

This new narrative on Tipu is unfortunately filtering in media discourse and acquiring dangerous propositions, poisoning young innocent minds. Sadly, the right-wing groups seem unwilling to debate issues with civility. If this narrative is allowed to go unchecked, soon Tipu Sultan will become another tyrant ruler like Aurangzeb, who too is victim of prejudiced propaganda.

While there is no denying that Tipu destroyed temples in lands that he conquered, at the same time he protected and generously supported those within his own domain. Those who depict Tipu as a Muslim bigot are so selective in their propaganda that they forget that he constructed a temple inside his fort of Srirangaptam along with a mosque. It is a living testimony of Tipu’s secular outlook where devotees throng the temple even to this day.

However, when the British invaded the Srirangapatam fort, they razed all structures inside, looted the priceless artefacts and took them to England. Many valuable items of that loot are now in private possession. Those in public domain are showcased in the British museum that has a separate chamber for the exploits from Srirangapatanam.

After the fall of the Srirangapatnam, when it was ascertained that Tipu was killed, some of the British officers went to look for his body. Benjamin Sydenham described him as: “He was in stature about 5 ft 8 in (1.73 m) and not very fair; he was rather fat, had a short neck and high shoulders, but his wrists and ankles were small and delicate. He had large full eyes, with small arched eyebrows and very small whiskers. His appearance denoted him to be above the ‘Common Stamp.’ And his countenance expressed a mixture of haughtiness and resolution.”

“He was dressed in a fine white linen jacket, chintz drawers, a crimson cloth round his waist with a red silk belt and pouch across his body and head. His head was devoid of any headgear and there were no weapons of defence about him.”

Historian William Dalrymple in an essay on Tipu Sultan pointed out that the British had an interest in painting him as an “intolerant bigot” to drum up a case for their conquest over him. The British tried to belittle all that Tipu stood for as they tarred the ruler’s achievements. And thus, the image of Tipu Sultan as the cruel Oriental despot captured the European imagination. Many of the stories that were circulated about him were largely blatant fabrications. Reports such as those produced by Colonel Wilks after the humiliating British defeat at the Battle of Pollilur and the sensational personal accounts of some 200 British captives taken to Srirangapatna after the battle helped form the impression of a demoniac Tipu in public eye.

Such fictitious propaganda has whetted the appetite of some readers in India. It is a pity that the British propaganda about Tipu Sultan is today shaping people’s opinion to think differently about him. It goes without saying that it’s improper to judge figures of the past by canons of the present. It would be outrageous to put pressure on today’s Muslims to pay for any such sins with the skewed understanding of that past.

Tipu Sultan has no relevance for any Muslim, except for the fact the ruler belonged to their faith. It is left to the astute people who are well-versed with facts to decide his place in history. As per history books, Tipu was “one of the most innovative and far-sighted rulers of the pre-colonial period.” He understood British designs on India and, as a “modernizing technocrat” used advanced western weaponry to fight them.

As compared to Tipu no Hindu ruler of his time can match his vision of the scientific advances that was made during his reign. Overall, Tipu’s reign was much more than what the Hindu right-wing fanatics are trying to portray about him. It is sheer communalism to paint him as a Muslim bigot. This hidden political agenda is a dangerous trend in the country, which must be checked. Those doing so should be warned that they could be booked under the provisions of the IPC dealing with spreading animosity among religious communities.

The real nationalist thing to do is to advance a truer understanding of Tipu as a historical figure, who was a secular south Indian ruler working for Hindu-Muslim unity. An example of this is of Purnaiah aka Mir Miran Purniya who was the member of Tipu’s inner Cabinet and the only Hindu in an all-Muslim Cabinet. Those distorting history for political gains must be stopped. —INFA

(Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)

New Delhi

17 November 2015

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