Follow us on


Tipu, Haidar and history

Print edition : Apr 01, 2000



Confronting Colonialism: Resistance and Modernisation under Haidar Ali and Tipu Sultan Ed. Irfan Habib, Tulika, 1999, pages 205, Rs. 220.

THE most resolute opponent of Colonialism in the second half of the 18th century, the Mysorean ruler Tipu Sultan, died in his island capital Srirangapatnam on May 4, 1799 following a final military engagement with the British forces. In Karnataka, a Stat e where his memory is specially cherished, and where he continues to remain a folk hero, the bicentennial year of Tipu's death was commemorated both officially and at the popular level. "The Dreams of Tipu Sultan", a play by Girish Karnad, was staged on May 4, 1999 amidst the ruins of Srirangapatnam. Notwithstanding unsuccessful attempts by members of the Bajrang Dal to disrupt the programmes, the occasion saw a number of initiatives at spreading what in the popular imagination is yet held as the histor ical legacy of Tipu, namely, religious and cultural integration, and a firm resistance to oppression (Frontline, June 4, 1999). Tipu's personal fight may have been against the British, but in modern times his legacy is often extended and interpret ed in popular representation as resistance to more immediate forms of social and economic oppression.

In contrast to the tribute that Tipu's home State paid to his memory, there was little recognition of the day and its significance elsewhere in the country. The Indian History Congress (IHC), however, resolved at its Kozhikode session in December 1999 to commemorate his bicentennial with a special symposium on 18th century Mysore under the rule of Haidar Ali and Tipu Sultan. As part of its commemoration, the IHC has published a volume of articles on various aspects of the history of Haidar and Tipu by a n early generation of Indian historians.

While there exists an abundance of academic, and even popular, historical writing on the life and times of Haidar and Tipu, this volume is specially planned to add a valuable segment of Tipu- and Haidar-centred historical research to the existing corpus. These are the numerous articles in the volume that have been presented by historians at the IHC over the years, in addition to those culled out from publications that are now out of print (this includes an excerpt from the accounts of Francis Buchanan w ho was commissioned by the East India Company to survey its southern domains in 1800-1801, just a year after the death of Tipu).

With an introductory essay by the noted historian of medieval India, Irfan Habib, that presents a historical analysis of 18th century Mysore under Haidar and Tipu, the volume is a significant compendium of well-researched articles by leading historians o f the day from as early as 1935. Though the articles deal with issues that range from a description of ship-building technology to the question of whether Haidar turned defeatist in his final days, there is a running thread through the volumes. Habib not es in his Introduction: "Whether what these writers say is right or wrong can be judged on the basis of the evidence they present in the papers. But the writers' attitude is also evidence of an anxiety to defend the memory of the two rulers, which in tur n tells us much about the sentiments that had swayed a bygone generation." Indeed almost all the articles in this volume take as their premise Tipu's positive role in standing up to early colonialism. Within that framework they then seek to understand th e complexities and contradictions of his ideas and actions.

In his Introduction Habib says that the ascent of Haidar Ali, a recruit of the Mysore state who later rose to faujdar or commandant of Dindigal and then to the throne of Mysore, was the result of the acquisition of a vastly superior military prowe ss - "a brilliant combination of the mobile cavalry organised on the Mughal pattern with his increasingly disciplined musket-using infantry". The adoption of the Mughal system of military organisation was extended to the internal arrangements of his poli ty. Haidar's rule, argues Habib, saw an increasing tendency towards centralisation of revenue administration. He began eliminating intermediaries and levying land tax directly from the peasantry, a system which became the basis for Munro's ryotwari syste m later. The increased revenue helped maintain the large standing army that the new methods of warfare necessitated. According to Habib, Haidar's successes against the British were of a short-term nature because of his failure to focus on the development of technology and commerce, and because he concentrated solely on military modernisation. This in turn led to a heavy dependence on the presence of Europeans, notably the French.

Under Tipu's reign statecraft took on several new dimensions. While the centralisation of the administration proceeded apace, Tipu carved a political identity for himself quite independent of the Mughal system. His relationship with Islam was different f rom that of his father. Tipu used Islam, Habib argues, as an ideological prop and a rallying force against the British. And while there are indefensible incidents of how he justified forced conversions, there is also a large and definitive body of eviden ce of the extremes to which Tipu went in supporting and even nurturing Hindu religious establishments and individuals. Articles by A. Subbaraya Chetty and B.A. Saletore discuss Tipu's relations with Hindu establishments, notably the Sriranga Math. There was a keen correspondence between Tipu and the Swami of the Srirangam Math, and when Tipu received letters regarding the pillage of the math by the Marathas, he rushed state aid in the form of money, grain and goods for the relief of the math.

THE articles in the volumes fall under the broad categories of anti-British wars and campaigns, diplomacy, Tipu's policy towards other religions, his efforts to modernise industry and agriculture, his attempts to build a viable naval force, and even a di scussion by art historian S.P. Verma on the artistic representation of the forts of Mysore by Thomas and William Daniells, British artists who travelled through his domains in the 1790s. The contributors include Jadunath Sarkar and C.S. Krishnaswami, bot h eminent historians of their time, as also Mohibbul Hasan, the author of the standard biography of Tipu, Mahmud Husain who has publicised a translation of "The Dreams of Tipu Sultan", B. Sheikh Ali, Ishtiaq Husain Qureshi who has written extensively on the medieval period and who became one of Pakistan's distinguished historians, George M. Moraes who was Professor of History at Bombay University, and Barun De, the well-known historian of 18th and 19th century India, amongst others.

Of particular interest is the set of articles on Tipu's diplomacy. Irshad Husain Baqai in his contribution discusses a first-person account by Brigadier-General Macleod, the representative from the Bombay government, of his meeting with Tipu after the 17 94 Treaty of Mangalore between the British and Tipu which led to a temporary cessation of hostilities. Macleod, who confesses that it "would make me proud to see the warlike prince I once had the honour of fighting", records the very frank exchange of vi ews between himself and Tipu. Here Tipu is eager for an honourable agreement between the two countries, and even promises to release British prisoners of war if such an agreement is reached.

A detailed article by A.P. Ibrahim Kunju, written in 1960, provides the background to Tipu's invasion of Travancore in 1790. Commenting on an event that has resulted in much hatred for Tipu in modern times, Kunju writes: "If we look closely into the reco rds of the period, it will be clear that the activities of the king of Travancore were so provocative that it is a wonder that the Mysorean rulers actually invaded Travancore only as late as 1790."

Tipu extended the process of centralisation to building a state monopoly in trade, commerce and industry. There are contributions in the volume on his ambitious plans to build a modern navy. Habib argues that although Tipu was interested in scientific in struments, he did not see as significant the understanding of the great advances Europe had made in science theory. "Tipu's intellectual horizons thus remained restricted to the old inherited learning," writes Habib. Tipu and his Mysore thus remained ".. .far away from a real opening to modern civilisation, despite his own bold and restless endeavours".



Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment