Interview: Prof. B. Sheik Ali

On the life and times of Tipu Sultan

Print edition : December 11, 2015

B. Sheik Ali. Photo: M.A. SRIRAM

Interview with Prof. B. Sheik Ali.

PROFESSOR B. Sheik Ali, 93, is a well-known authority on Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan. His work on aspects of their reigns began in 1949 in Aligarh when he was encouraged to take up research on the theme by Mohammed Habib, a well-known historian of medieval India at the time. He followed up his PhD from Aligarh with a second PhD from the University of London in 1960. Fluent in English, Kannada, Persian and Urdu and with a working knowledge of French, this Mysore-based historian has published more than 30 books on various aspects of the history of Karnataka and India. He was the president of the 47th session of the Indian History Congress in 1986 and also established the Karnataka History Conference. His academic career saw him take up administrative duties, and he has served as the Vice Chancellor of the universities of Mangalore and Goa. This nonagenarian and indefatigable scholar is currently working on translating Maulana Abul Kalam Azad’s works. Excerpts from an interview he gave Frontline:

There seems to be some confusion about Tipu Sultan’s birthdate. There are various dates mentioned in November and December 1750. Why is this so?

There are variations in the birthdate of Tipu Sultan as it has been mentioned differently in various sources. One must remember that in those days, Muslims, especially those who did not belong to the nobility, were not very particular about noting down the exact birthdate. When Tipu Sultan was born, Hyder Ali had not yet become the ruler of Mysore and had not yet acquired distinction. He was an ordinary soldier and only a local commander. There is also the problem of aligning the dates of the Hijri calendar with the Gregorian calendar. However, we have the exact date of Tipu’s death.

What were the social origins of Hyder Ali? Did he descend from nobility?

Hyder Ali did not belong to the nobility. He had descended from a family of saints. He was a self-made man. He was a shrewd politician who established his kingdom. Tipu went a step ahead compared with Hyder as he also saw himself as a social reformer.

Can you discuss some of the crucial aspects of Tipu’s personality?

Tipu was not happy with the social conditions of the day. There was wide disparity between different castes. The rigidity of the caste system was intensely high at the time. As far as land relations were concerned, the jagirdari system was prevalent. In Kerala, for example, there were communities where women did not cover the upper part of their bodies. Tipu was concerned about the inequalities in society. Tipu was in contact with the French during the time of the French Revolution. He was aware of events in Europe and was attracted to the maxims of the revolution, which called for equal rights for everyone in the world: liberty, equality and fraternity. He referred to himself as “Citizen Tipu” and saw himself as a revolutionist. In Srirangapatnam, he had a club consisting of 59 French soldiers and himself. In this club, everyone was equal, including the king. Through his friends among the French, he was aware of social movements in Europe. He was influenced by three European movements: Renaissance [Italy], Reformation [Germany] and Revolution [France]. He wanted to blend the salient features of these movements in his reign.

You mentioned that Tipu was close to the French. If he was a freedom fighter and was opposed to foreign rule, why did he ally with the French? Are these not double standards?

Tipu was aware of the role of the French in the American War of Independence [1775-1783]. The French offered crucial support to the Americans. They went to America, fought the war for American independence and came back. Likewise, Tipu was under the assumption that Napoleon would drive the British out of India and go back. That did not happen. That was the reason for his embassy to Louis XVI in 1787 and the invitation to Napoleon in 1798.

Tipu also invited Muslim monarchs from places like Afghanistan to come to India. What do you have to say about this?

Yes, there is correspondence between Tipu and Zaman Shah, the grandson of Ahmed Shah Abdali. He felt that a certain balance of power could be restored in the subcontinent, which would act as a check to the growing influence of the East India Company. However, Zaman Shah had to beat a retreat when his kingdom in Herat was attacked by Iran. There was a British hand in this as well.

What were some of the contributions of Tipu to the political economy of Mysore?

Well, there are too many to name. He was the first Indian ruler to envisage state control of trade and industry. He established manufacturing and trade centres in several parts of his kingdom and also in Muscat, Jeddah, Basrah and Pegu (now Bago).

He conceptualised a system of state capitalism that was far ahead of his times. Mysore silk, which has become a recognised industry in Karnataka, had its roots in Tipu’s success in introducing sericulture. Tipu’s army also had iron-cased rockets that were far more advanced than what the East India Company was equipped with at the time. He is also credited with forming a navy with the intention of fighting sea battles as opposed to the merchant navies that other rulers had. He undertook a series of reforms such as the abolition of the jagirdari system.

Why was there such a campaign of hatred against Tipu by the English?

The English saw Tipu as an impediment to their plans of conquering India. The early British sources on Tipu were the ones written by soldiers who had been imprisoned by him during the Anglo-Mysore Wars. This formed the basis for prejudiced accounts of Tipu’s reign that cast him as a despot.

There was a constant campaign against Tipu by the English. No one in India had humiliated and dictated terms to the English as Tipu and Hyder had done. The intensity and hostility had gone to such a level that the English regretted that their language was not copious enough to find sufficient epithets to condemn him with.

There are allegations of forced conversion and massacres of Hindus by Tipu Sultan. What do you have to say about this?

Tipu’s actions must be seen in the context of his role as a ruler. His actions must not be seen as being motivated by the religious or the communal, but the political. Minor rulers opposed Tipu and allied with the English, and hence Tipu had to establish his power in the wake of constant provocations. The number of conversions has been vastly exaggerated. If he was harsh on Hindu rulers, he was even more so on Muslim rulers like the Nawabs of Savanur, Cuddapah and Kurnool, and the Muslims of Malabar and the Mahdavis. Tipu had an eclectic and liberal religious policy, which has been distorted by colonial historians. He raised Hindus to a high position in his government. Tipu gave liberal grants to temples. Records show as many as 156 temples received grants. The letters written by Tipu to the Swamiji of Sringeri express such sentiments of respect for Hinduism as to disprove any charge of religious intolerance levelled against him. He went to the extent of furnishing the mutt with funds for reinstalling the displaced idol after the temple had been desecrated by Maratha troops.

How would you assess Tipu’s role against the English?

He was a person who offered his life to write the history of free India. It was his maxim to live like a lion for a day rather than live like a jackal for a hundred years. His life’s goal was to eliminate the English, and he used all the means he could for this. He never deviated from his goal, never compromised on this principle and never submitted himself to the paramountcy of a foreign power. Tipu’s short reign witnessed momentous changes. India was fast becoming a land for European exploitation. He attempted to prevent it and was shot dead in the process. Apparently, he failed in his efforts but he left a mark on the pages of history.