The BJP’s strategists in Karnataka consider the reign and legacy of Tipu Sultan, the 18th century ruler of Mysore, to be a gift that keeps on giving. Members of the BJP and its wider affiliates among the Sangh Parivar allege that the Muslim ruler was bigoted and his religious policies targeted Hindus during his reign, which lasted for less than two decades between 1782 and 1799.
The BJP’s frontal assault on Tipu’s legacy began in 2015 after the then Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, of the Congress, commenced an annual State celebration to mark Tipu’s birthday. Until then, several senior BJP leaders such as former Chief Ministers B.S. Yediyurappa and Jagadish Shettar had even appeared in public functions commemorating Tipu and had adorned green turbans and held aloft faux swords mimicking the ruler’s battle pose.
The allegations against Tipu have been contested by a wide array of respectable historians such as Mysuru-based P.V. Nanjaraj Urs, who considers him to have been one of the earliest rulers to resist to British colonialism but, in the din of social media, these scholarly rebuttals have often drowned. Thus, for a significant section of the population in Karnataka, Tipu has become a reviled figure although he continues to have ardent fans across all communities for the radical social and technological changes that he brought to Mysore.
The BJP’s aggressive attempt to make inroads into rural southern Karnataka will likely be a prominent feature of the forthcoming Assembly election. The region is dominated by the Vokkaliga community and has resisted the saffron party’s charms in the past. As a part of this initiative, the Sangh Parivar has created two mythical Vokkaliga characters and claimed that they valorously killed Tipu in the battlefield during the Fourth Anglo-Mysore War on May 4, 1799. These two dramatis personae, called Uri Gowda and Nanje Gowda, started making their appearance on right-wing Hindu social media pages in 2017.
Initially, this clumsy effort at distorting or creating fake history was lampooned in Karnataka, but soon, the myth acquired a patina of truth following relentless bombardment on social media and made its convoluted way into wider public discourse.
Prominent BJP leaders such as C.T. Ravi continuously harped on the brave role of these two soldiers in vanquishing the “Hindu-hater Tipu Sultan”. The myth further received a boost when Addanda Cariappa, playwright and BJP loyalist, published a play in Kannada last year titled Tippu Nija Kanasagalu (“The Real Dreams of Tipu Sultan”) where Tipu is killed by Uri Gowda and Nanje Gowda. The play was even performed in different parts of Karnataka.
The myth has become such an integral part of the BJP campaign now that a hastily erected arch in Mandya, the heartland of the Vokkaliga community in south Karnataka, that paid homage to the two supposed warriors, was slated to welcome Prime Minister Narendra Modi when he visited the town on March 12. The arch was demolished before Modi’s arrival after an uproar but this brazen falsification of history has shocked many in the State.
Purushottam Bilimale, former holder of the Kannada Chair at Jawaharlal Nehru University, said: “If the BJP manages to lure the Vokkaligas, it is very easy for the party to gain a simple majority in the forthcoming election. Wooing the Vokkaligas has been a long-term aim of the BJP in Karnataka. That is why you had people like Yediyurappa and Shettar endorsing Tipu in the past because Tipu is dear to the Vokkaligas but this strategy failed and that is why they have created Uri Gowda and Nanje Gowda to manufacture a communal divide between the Vokkaligas and Muslims and to gain politically.”
He added: “Historically, it is the Vokkaligas who benefited from Tipu’s agricultural policies. If the Vokkaligas fall prey to these fabrications now, it will also mean that the Vokkaligas fought against an Indian ruler on the side of the British.”