Contested legacy

Print edition : December 11, 2015

A portrait of Tipu Sultan at Dariya Daulat in Srirangapatnam, painted in 1792 by G.F. Cherry.

A stone plaque records the place where the body of Tipu Sultan was found in 1799, at Srirangapatanam. Photo: M.A. SRIRAM

The plaque that claims to mark the exact spot where Tipu was born, some 100 metres from the fort at Devanahalli. Photo: K. Bhagya Prakash

Tipu’s fort at Srirangapatnam. Photo: M.A. SRIRAM

The fort at Devanahalli. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

One of the three surviving tiger-head finials that adorned Tipu’s throne, which lay for years in an English castle and was auctioned in London in March 2009. Photo: LEFTERIS PITARAKIS/AP

The controversy in Karnataka surrounding “Tipu Jayanthi” becomes meaningless in the light of the fact that the legacy of Tipu Sultan cannot be understood through the lens of modernity and should be placed in the context of his times.

A DAY after the State government-sponsored commemoration of Tipu Sultan’s birthday on November 10 and the accompanying disturbances, his birthplace in Devanahalli, located around 40 kilometres from Bengaluru, was remarkably quiet. Fresh marigold flowers that were generously strewn on the plaque that announced “Birth Place of Tipu Sultan: 1751 A.D.” in English, Urdu and Kannada were the only sign that the town of his birth remembered him. Garlands of flowers also hung from the pavilion built over the plaque, located a hundred metres away from the entrance to the Devanahalli fort. A lone police constable, visibly bored by his solitary vigil, said: “A procession was taken around town by Muslims yesterday. That’s all. Nothing else happened.”

While we may never know if Tipu was born on that exact spot, his birth in the town of Devanahalli in 1750 (and not 1751, as the plaque proclaims) is well documented. Currently, the impressive stone ramparts of the fort run around most of the town, which has a thriving population. Parts of the fort have become dilapidated. The recesses and the alcoves are covered with graffiti. Several structures in the town are being renovated in blatant violation of Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) guidelines regarding construction near protected monuments.

Back in 1749, the forces of Mysore laid siege to this fort. It was in this short battle that Hyder Ali’s bravery was noticed by the rulers of Mysore. In the following year, while he was away fighting in another battle, his first son, Tipu Sultan (Fateh Ali), was born here. Tipu’s birth came at a propitious time for Hyder, whose prominence in Mysore, especially among soldiers, was rising as he excelled in warfare and established a reputation as a leader. There followed a short stint as the faujdar (military commander) of Dindigul, where this illiterate solider honed his administrative skills. Later, a variety of factors gave Hyder the opportunity to assume the command of the Mysore forces and he became the de facto ruler of the kingdom by 1761.

Meanwhile in Delhi, Mughal power had been declining rapidly. The Marathas, who had established their sway over vast swathes of the subcontinent, were clashing with the forces of the Afghan Ahmad Shah Abdali in the Third Battle of Panipat. At the same time, in what is now Karnataka, various powers were fighting for the expansion of their territories. The threats to Mysore were many, and as Hyder consolidated his power, he was threatened by the Marathas, the Nizam of Hyderabad, the Nawab of the Carnatic, and the English under the aegis of the East India Company, who by the time had clearly established themselves as powerful players in the subcontinent. The French were also an important power that could not be ignored. They allied with Hyder and Tipu at various times, but they were not reliable allies as events in Europe dictated their moves in India. The balance of power in peninsular India kept shifting as alliances were made and remade.

In this state of flux, what was consistent in both Hyder and Tipu’s political policy was their opposition to the English. They fought four wars, known as the Anglo-Mysore Wars, against the East India Company between 1767 and 1799. During the First Anglo-Mysore War (1767-69), Hyder kept the Marathas at bay, while the shifting loyalties of the Nizam of Hyderabad worked in his favour. With the help of the Nizam, Hyder soundly defeated the English, threatening their southern headquarters in Madras, before a treaty was signed. This was the first time that the East India Company’s political and military ascendancy in the subcontinent was checked since they began to involve themselves aggressively in its affairs.

Hyder died in 1782 in the midst of the Second Anglo-Mysore War (1780-84), which commenced after he invaded the Carnatic as part of a confederacy with the Marathas. With Hyder’s death, Tipu’s ascension to the de facto position as head of Mysore was smooth. Unlike the unlettered Hyder, evidence shows that Tipu was a scholar of some repute, a polyglot as well as a skilled leader in the battlefield. Tipu inherited a vast and rich kingdom that consisted of the whole of modern Karnataka along with parts of Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and northern Kerala. But although the transition from the father to the son was smooth, his kingdom was under immediate threat from the English. Tipu managed to hold his own, and the second war ended without any major concessions from either party in the Treaty of Mangalore in 1784.

The Third Anglo-Mysore War (1789-92) saw Tipu attack the State of Travancore. This provided an opportunity for the East India Company to enter the war as Travancore was an ally of the British. The Marathas and the Nizam of Hyderabad were also on the side of the English forces. Tipu was soundly defeated in this war by the Earl of Cornwallis, who had recently arrived in India after the rout of the English forces in America. He had to concede half his kingdom and give up two of his sons as hostages. But he remained a potent threat to the East India Company’s expansionist policy and he continued to implore the French for assistance. His correspondence with Comte de Malartic, the French commander in Mauritius, led to a final showdown in the last Anglo-Mysore War. Besieged on many sides, Tipu died on the battlefield fighting the superior English forces on May 4, 1799, apparently betrayed by some of his own Ministers. He was 48 years old.

Tipu’s grave can still be seen in Srirangapatnam, where he is buried alongside his parents in a mausoleum that he raised after Hyder’s death. It is located in a garden a couple of kilometres away from Tipu’s palace known as Darya Daulat Bagh. A faux tiger skin covers his grave, and the interior of the mausoleum is painted in the colours of a tiger, the mascot of the kingdom during Tipu’s reign. Interestingly, his urs (death anniversary) is marked annually through rituals associated with that of Sufi saints, which shows how his legacy has been appropriated by some Muslims as a martyr for Islam. A guide at the mausoleum, Shabeer Khan, mentioned that a few thousand people irrespective of religion and nationality visit it every day.

How do we evaluate the legacy of Tipu Sultan and the short-lived dynasty of father and son? The duo ruled Mysore for a little less than 40 years and constantly battled various foes who coveted its rich and fertile territory. Tipu had no peace with his neighbouring kingdoms in the 17 years of his reign. Their impact on the political economy of the region of Mysore has had far-reaching consequences, but these are often ignored in the brawly debates about Tipu’s religious policies.

The primary sources on the life and times of Tipu are of two kinds —accounts left by court chroniclers such as Husain Ali Khan Kirmani and by soldiers and civilians in the service of the East India Company. Both kinds of sources are problematic if read in isolation, as is done by amateur historians.

Court chroniclers routinely exaggerated the exploits of their masters. Take the two volumes of the Nishan-i-Haidari written by Kirmani, for instance. These were translated into English in 1842 and 1864, and the translations are not reliable. Kirmani was a pensioner of the British in Calcutta when he wrote the original volumes. His claim that 80,000 people in Coorg (Kodagu) were forcefully converted to Islam is often cited. Yet this was about the size of the entire population of Coorg in 1839-40, which indicates that Kirmani was exaggerating. The 1871 Census, the first in British India, recorded 154,476 Hindus against just 11,304 Muslims in Coorg. There might have been conversions, but the numbers seem to have been exaggerated substantially.

There are charges that Tipu’s armies converted thousands of Nairs at sword point in the Malabar. He is supposed to have issued a proclamation prohibiting the custom of polyandry, warning that defaulters would be converted. This also needs to be seen in the context of the times. K.M. Panikkar writes in his History of Kerala: 1498-1801: “It was not religious bigotry that made Tipu issue this amazing proclamation. He was firmly convinced that in asking the Nairs to give up what he called their obscene habits, he was undertaking a mission of civilisation. It is the narrow reformer’s mind, anxious for the moral and material welfare of the people, and not the fanaticism of the bigot desirous of converting the Kafir, that speaks in his proclamation.”

Even before the works of Tipu’s court chroniclers could be translated into English, the British writers Colonel Mark Wilks (in 1810) and Lieutenant-Colonel William Kirkpatrick (in 1811) had already declared Tipu a fanatical, intolerant bigot. Their works must be read in the context of the East India Company’s own rapacity and its attempts to seek legitimacy for its expansionist agenda by casting Tipu as an Oriental despot.

Michael Soracoe, in his doctoral thesis submitted to the University of Maryland in 2013, used archival records, newspaper evidence and popular art and theatre sources to argue that the “vilification of Tipu was linked to the development of an imperial culture. Expansionist Governors General consciously blackened the character of Tipu to make their own aggressive actions more palatable to British audiences at home. Through a process of reversal, preventive war came to be justified as defensive in nature, protecting the native inhabitants of Mysore from the depredations of an unspeakable despot. The increasingly vilified and caricatured representations of Tipu allowed the East India Company to portray itself as fighting a moral crusade to liberate southern India from the depredations of a savage ruler. Company servants were recast in the British popular imagination from unscrupulous nabobs into virtuous soldier-heroes that embodied the finest qualities of the British nation. The study of the faithless and violent character of ‘Tippoo the Tyrant’ ultimately reveals much about how empire is constructed at home and abroad.”

Tipu was a man of his time—a strong and ambitious ruler in the melee of the late eighteenth century. Aware that he would remain only the de facto ruler of Mysore if he did not establish himself as an independent sovereign, he sought legitimacy. His father’s roots were obscure, and Hyder was by most accounts merely a brave solider of fortune. For a parvenu such as Tipu, it was important to be seen as a legitimate padshah. Since he failed to get this legitimacy from the Mughals or his neighbours (the Nizam of Hyderabad even refused to marry his daughter to Tipu’s son, citing his low social status), Tipu reached out to monarchs like the Ottoman Sultan, who still was the Caliph of Islam. In his contacts with Turkey, he was reaching out to a higher authority than even the Mughals.

Tipu also sent diplomatic missions to France, Iran and Afghanistan to seek help and also to establish his stature as an independent ruler.

It is futile to use modern categories of nationalism or secularism to evaluate Tipu Sultan’s actions. If the test of nationalism is as simple as opposition to the English, then Tipu can easily be classified as a freedom fighter. But did he recognise the threat posed by the English? An answer to that question is beyond the scope of this essay.

The grand histories of nation states need icons. In the turbulent years of the late eighteenth century, when rulers in India were engaged in guarding their own selfish interests, it is undeniable that Tipu stood as a bulwark against the East India Company’s aggressive policies. His iconic status, therefore, is easily justified, more so to strengthen the narrative of secular nationalism in modern India.

Was Tipu secular? A visitor to Srirangapatnam cannot miss the massive Sri Ranganathaswamy temple, an ancient place of worship that lies a few hundred metres from Tipu’s palace. If he was as big a religious fanatic as he is made out to be, would he allow such a temple to stand so close to his seat of power?

There are two other prominent temples in the vicinity. There are several examples of Tipu’s generous support to prominent temples, and his letters to these temples, written in Kannada, survive. His close advisors were Hindu Brahmins. In Kannada folklore, Tipu has an exalted position.

Why then is he being so severely castigated at present?

One answer may be found in the comments of the eminent historian Romila Thapar, who has argued at various places that there is a strong link between colonial and communal historiography. In the case of Tipu, we see an easy elision between the two views.

Even the adoption of the tiger motif seems to have been a calculated move. The tiger had long been an emblem used by prominent Hindu ruling dynasties. Perhaps it was through such measures that he drew legitimacy for his rule in a land peopled largely by Hindus. Useful discussions on how Tipu sought legitimacy can be found in Kate Brittlebank’s work Tipu Sultan’s Search for Legitimacy: Islam and Kingship in a Hindu Domain (1997).

Tipu may be one of the most well known figures from eighteenth century Indian history, but he is also the least understood. His conduct and legacy remain contested. If we attempt to evaluate Tipu through the framework of modernity, we may fail to appreciate the richness of his reign. He was a man who should be seen in the context of his times. As a ruler he was more idealistic than his politically shrewd father, but he was nonetheless a practitioner of realpolitik.

There has been a tendency over the past few decades to vilify Muslim rulers in Indian history, and Tipu has been one of the victims. This is a dangerous trend and must be checked. His brief rule cast a long shadow on the events that were to follow in India. For that alone, he should be remembered.

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