THREE people have already lost their lives in the communally tainted and widespread protests, counter-protests and police action in the wake of the Tipu jayanthi functions held by the Siddaramaiah government on November 10 to commemorate the 265th birth anniversary of the 18th century ruler of Mysore. Madikeri in Kodagu district and Bantwal in Dakshina Kannada district were the worst affected by the violent protests. It is not surprising considering the fact that Tipu Sultan has never been popular among Coorgs (the people of Kodagu) because of his alleged atrocities—persecution of prisoners and the plunder of conquered territories —during his campaigns against them, and that Dakshina Kannada, a hotbed of Hindutva, has always been a communal tinderbox waiting to explode at the slightest provocation.
The police claim that a 55-year-old Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) functionary who died during the protests at Madikeri against the government for organising Tipu’s birth anniversary celebrations suffered a fall from a wall while fleeing from the violence, which the government claims was the handiwork of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Hindutva groups allied with it. His fellow protesters, however, say he was hit by a stone. A 23-year-old Muslim man succumbed to the bullet injuries he sustained at the same demonstration. The next day, a 35-year-old plumber was chased and stabbed in Bantwal (30 kilometres from the port city of Mangaluru) just an hour after people protesting against the Madikeri episode were pelted with stones.
While the VHP and the Bajrang Dal have been leading the anti-Tipu jayanthi agitations, the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI), the political wing of the Popular Front of India, is the principal proponent rallying behind the government’s decision to celebrate Tipu jayanthi and countering the Hindutva groups’ protests. Both sides have been calling for State-wide agitations and trying to use Tipu’s legacy to further their own political causes and rivalry, and as a result setting alight communal tensions.
Controversial decision Given the fact that the BJP and many right-wing groups have for some years been vociferously questioning Tipu’s legacy as a great king who fearlessly fought the British, the government’s decision to declare a Tipu jayanthi was inexplicable and puzzling to even some of Siddaramaiah's own partymen and Cabinet colleagues. Said a senior Minister on condition of anonymity: “It was not necessary. I don’t understand the reason for it. Nobody asked for it. The pros and cons should have been discussed and a more balanced and nuanced decision taken. The party has not gained the goodwill of any section from this decision. Maybe it alienated some in the majority community.”
However, he dismissed the commonly held view that it was a politically motivated decision meant to appease the minorities. “That’s not true. It was an innocent decision, maybe taken too trivially. No one, including Siddaramaiah, imagined it would lead to this sort of violence,” said the Minister.
But Siddaramaiah’s critics say that the decision was his personal strategy to be seen as the messiah of the minorities and to provide the much-needed oxygen to the “Ahinda” (a Kannada acronym for minorities, backward classes and Dalits) concept, which he had mooted just after he parted ways with the Janata Dal (Secular) in 2006. Siddaramaiah, who joined the Congress the same year, is still considered by many party old-timers as an “outsider”, and Ahinda, in the eventuality of a political realignment, could be an alternative platform. The Chief Minister was recently—after over two years of dilly-dallying—forced to accommodate in his Cabinet his one-time rival for the post of Chief Minister, G. Parameshwara, with a prime portfolio (Home).
The opposition parties in the State are convinced that the decision to celebrate Tipu jayanthi is nothing but politics. Said H.D. Kumaraswamy, former Chief Minister and State president of the Janata Dal (Secular): “The Congress unnecessarily created a controversy by having this jayanthi. It was a childish decision by the Chief Minister for political gains. But it won’t help the Congress.”
“It is vote-bank politics, an attempt to woo the minorities. Siddaramaiah is also trying to consolidate his own position in the party. And with his government being criticised for failing to stem the State’s agrarian crisis and the deteriorating law and order, he wants to divert the attention of the people. Yes, we also celebrated Kanakadasa and Valmiki jayanthis, but they were not controversial figures,” said the BJP’s Jagadish Shettar, Leader of the Opposition in the Legislative Assembly.
“What is wrong with conducting a Tipu jayanthi?” asked R. Roshan Baig, Minister for Infrastructure Development, Haj and Information. “It is only a function to mark the birthday of the former ruler of Mysore. Those opposing it should learn to respect the sentiments of the minority community. Also they must appreciate that no Muslim has asked for a holiday [unlike other jayanthis that have been declared government holidays] to mark the occasion. And… how can Tipu Sultan be a controversial figure? Tipu has been labelled controversial only because he was a Muslim. See… how long should Indian Muslims be forced to keep reiterating that they are secular and that they are Indian? I am ashamed of this hypocrisy.”
According to Baig, it was incorrect to say that there was no demand for a Tipu jayanthi. “Over 11 months ago, historians Sheikh Ali and Talakad Chikkarange Gowda, among others, had met the Chief Minister and appealed to him to have it.”
Whatever be the reasons for the jayanthi, the State government could have avoided instructing the Directorate of Minorities to organise the programme (rather than the Kannada and Culture Department, which organises the other jayanthis), and that too on a public holiday (November 10 is Naraka Chaturdashi-Deepavali) and on a date that historians are unsure whether it was indeed Tipu’s real date of birth. Many historians say it is November 20.
The jayanthi also saw the eminent playwright Girish Karnad being tweeted a death threat for his remarks during the jayanthi celebrations that the international airport at Bengaluru, which is named after the city’s 16th-century founder Kempegowda, could have been named after Tipu Sultan since it was located at the sultan’s birthplace.
Karnad later clarified that he was merely making an observation and that he had been misquoted, but the remark provided ample fodder to right-wing groups and Karnataka’s dominant Vokkaliga community, which saw it as an affront against Kempegowda, one of their own.
Historians like Ramachandra Guha and S. Settar criticised the government’s decision. Said Settar: “Tipu is today remembered not only because he was a ruler but also for other reasons, and he has to be judged in the environment he existed in. But politicians on either side want to artificially revive a personality like Tipu, who has long been forgotten, and keep his memory alive for their own selfish political ends.” Asked Guha: “Should a democratically elected government in modern India be celebrating a monarch? People and private institutions can do so if they wish to.”