By fabricating history and asserting that two fictitious Vokkaliga soldiers killed Tipu, the Sangh Parivar tries to advance its political agenda.
On March 19, several prominent newspapers in Karnataka ran a full-page advertisement announcing that the shooting for a Kannada film titled “Uri Gowda, Nanje Gowda” would begin on May 18. The poster featured two muscular warriors, with “1750-1799” emblazoned beneath a sword that stylishly cleaved the film’s title. The battle scenes in the background added to the impression that it was a war film.
The poster also carried the photographs of Bharatiya Janata Party politicians Muniratna (Minister of Horticulture), R. Ashoka (Minister of Revenue) and C. T. Ravi (BJP national general secretary) who hail from the Vokkaliga community. Higher Education Minister Dr C.N. Ashwath Narayan (another prominent Vokkaliga leader) was named as the script writer of the film, which was surprising because the senior politician had never displayed such talent in the past. Muniratna, who is a Kannada film producer, was named as the producer of the movie.
However, in a strange twist, Muniratna changed his mind about making the movie. A day after the announcement, Nirmalanandanatha Swami of the Adichunchanagiri Mutt (religious seminary), which is the community’s supreme spiritual authority, summoned Muniratna. It was after this meeting that Muniratna decided against making the movie.
In a subsequent statement to the media, Nirmalanandanatha Swami said, “The discussions on Uri Gowda and Nanje Gowda have led to a great deal of controversy and has hurt the sentiments of a particular community [Vokkaligas]. I conveyed this to him after which he assured me that he would not proceed with the making of this movie.”
The seer further said: “It is not appropriate to talk about these two [Vokkaliga] characters without sufficient documentary evidence. I have advised BJP leaders such as C.T. Ravi, Ashwath Narayan, K. Gopaliah [another Vokkaliga leader who is Excise Minister] and anyone else making statements on this issue to understand the historical context. I expect that they will not make any further statements on this issue. There is a difference between writing history and writing fiction. When you use your imagination, it becomes a novel.” After this censure from the supreme pontiff of the Vokkaliga community, even Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai chimed in to say that the film should not be made.
One must go back a few years to trace the origin of the mythical characters called Uri Gowda and Nanje Gowda to understand the significance of Nirmalanandanatha Swami’s statements. These two characters made their appearance on social media in 2018 as the killers of the 18th century Mysore ruler Tipu Sultan. Although there have been stray references to these two soldiers on Twitter and Facebook as early as 2016, they gained legitimacy from 2018 onwards in the right-wing Hindu ecosphere, where this lie was often repeated.
The fictional account of Uri Gowda and Nanje Gowda repeated countless times on social media took on the appearance of verified truth, similar to a Goebbelsian lie or what psychologists call the “illusion of truth”. When the BJP came to power in Karnataka in 2019 after toppling the Congress-Janata Dal (Secular) coalition government, the first decision of Chief Minister B.S. Yediyurappa was to cancel the Tipu Jayanti celebrations started by his Congress predecessor Siddaramaiah in 2015. Soon, Suresh Kumar, the then Minister of Primary Education, appointed a textbook review committee to revise the content about Tipu Sultan in school textbooks that depicted him as an early opponent of British colonialism.
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At the end of 2019, the BJP government appointed Addanda C. Cariappa, a playwright who proudly declares his allegiance to the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and opposition to the Congress, as the 10th director of Rangayana, a government-funded repertory in Mysuru. Although several stalwarts of Kannada theatre opposed his appointment, the government remained firm on its decision. Cariappa has also been at the forefront of the anti-Tipu Jayanti protests spearheaded by the BJP that have rocked the State annually since the time of its commencement. In an interview to Frontline, Cariappa said that he had begun work on a play to “demolish the hero worship of Tipu Sultan in Karnataka” sometime in 2020 after the onset of the COVID pandemic.
The play, Tippu Nija Kanasagalu (The Real Dreams of Tipu Sultan; the title was also meant to distinguish it from Girish Karnad’s play The Dreams of Tipu Sultan published in 1997), was eventually published in mid-2022. In it the dramatis personae Uri Gowda and Nanje Gowda kill Tipu Sultan. BJP politicians such as Ravi and Shobha Karandlaje (also a Vokkaliga) simultaneously began to vociferously claim that the 18th century Muslim ruler was no hero and that he was killed by two Vokkaliga soldiers on May 4, 1799, during the Fourth (and final) Anglo-Mysore War. Although Cariappa denies any connection, the timing of the play’s publication coincided with the BJP’s announcement of its aggressive push into the rural Vokkaliga heartland of southern Karnataka with the intention of gaining political ground in the 2023 Assembly election.
In the past year, Uri Gowda and Nanje Gowda have taken on the personas of the Maruthu Pandiyar brothers, two anti-British fighters from Tamil Nadu. This imagery even adorned an arch erected to welcome Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Mandya, the bastion of the Vokkaliga community, on March 12. The arch was dismantled after the district administration intervened in response to complaints, but the saffron party’s brazenness in using two fake characters to bolster its campaign in southern Karnataka has shocked many people.
Mansoor Ali, a Bengaluru-based architect and researcher who conducts heritage walks, said, “This effort at pitching Vokkaligas against Muslims is foolish as there is evidence to show that the Wodeyars [the Mysore dynasty that preceded and followed the reigns of Tipu Sultan and his father Hyder Ali] captured the last scion of the Kempegowda clan.” Kempegowda, a Vokkaliga icon, was a vassal of the Vijayanagar Empire and is credited with founding Bengaluru in the 16th century.
Nidhin G. Olikara, a historian of 18th century Mysore and one of the leading authorities on the reign of Tipu, said, “Tipu is not new to controversies, and for 200 years now, his motives and personality have been questioned, praised and condemned by the British, his enemies and admirers in India and now the BJP. But for me, what is disconcerting is that for the first time a story has been created and imaginary characters propped up against Tipu and brought into the limelight.”
Ameen Ahmed, a Canada-based researcher who maintains a blog called “The told & untold history of Mysuru Kingdom”, said that there was overwhelming evidence that Tipu was killed by British soldiers. He quotes David Price, a British soldier who came to India in 1779 and rose to the rank of prize agent of the Bombay Army by 1799. Price oversaw the documentation of the treasures found in the palace of Tipu Sultan after the latter’s death. “Price concluded that Tipu’s death was at the hands of a European soldier after Tipu cut him for trying to snatch his belt. Price witnessed a bandage over the dead Tipu’s right shoulder the next morning, confirming the musket shot he received as witnessed by the British soldiers,” says Ahmed. There are several other sources in English, French, Persian, and Marathi which corroborate this account.
T. Gururaj, a journalist based in Mysuru who has followed the trajectory of the fictional Uri Gowda and Nanje Gowda, said the characters first made their first appearance in 2007 in the revised version of a book called Suvarna Mandya, which was first published in 1994 by the Kannada Sahitya Parishat in Mandya. “In the revised version there were no sources that documented their existence. After that, I began to see that this falsehood was being spread on social media during the pandemic.”
However, Uri Gowda and Nanje Gowda died a premature death before they became tinsel stars thanks to the Vokkaliga pontiff’s intervention.
- On March 19, Karnataka dailies ran a full-page ad announcing that the shooting for Kannada film “Uri Gowda, Nanje Gowda” would begin on May 18. Higher Education Minister Dr C.N. Ashwath Narayan was named as the scriptwriter of the film, and Minister of Horticulture Muniratna its producer.
- A day later, Nirmalanandanatha Swami of the Adichunchanagiri Mutt summoned Muniratna. After the meeting Muniratna decided against making the movie.
- Uri Gowda and Nanje Gowda are mythical characters that made their appearance on social media in 2018 as Vokkaliga soldiers who killed the 18th century Mysore ruler Tipu Sultan. The speculative history that is being created by the Sangh Parivar implying that Tipu was killed by these two guerrilla warriors would ultimately have meant that the Vokkaligas sided with the British against an Indian ruler.
Maths and political clout
The pontiffs of different castes in Karnataka have wielded significant political influence. B.L. Shankar, a Congress politician who is also a Vokkaliga, explained the significance of the Adichunchanagiri Mutt on the Vokkaliga community: “The Vokkaligas revere Nirmalanandanatha Swami as they did his predecessor Balagangadharanatha Swami. The stature of this matha has been fortified over several decades. Matadhipathis [heads of mathas] in Karnataka are very influential. For the community, whatever the seer says is the final word.”
According to him, since Tipu was killed in the battlefield, the speculative history that is being created, implying that Tipu was killed by these two guerrilla warriors, will ultimately mean that the Vokkaligas sided with the British against an Indian ruler. “This would do more harm than good for Vokkaligas and is clearly an insult to the community. That is why I think the Swamiji gave this statement. The characters were created to polarise Hindus and Muslims in south Karnataka in the run-up to the election.”
History as polarising tool
The BJP has often been accused of distorting history with an intention of polarising Muslims and Hindus all over the country. Since the commencement of the Tipu Jayanti in Karnataka, the BJP has latched on to the issue of Tipu and contested the claim that he was a freedom fighter. Instead, in their perspective, the Muslim ruler was a religious bigot who demolished temples and forcefully converted thousands of Hindus. Thus, Tipu is often invoked in speeches by BJP leaders to polarise the electorate on communal lines.
However, it is for the first time that the BJP has backtracked on a historical claim after villainising a Muslim ruler. This does not mean that the BJP will stop using Tipu Sultan in their election rhetoric; Karnataka BJP president Nalin Kumar Kateel has already stated that the Assembly election would be a “battle between the ideology of Tipu and [V.D.] Savarkar”.
When Cariappa was asked what he intended to achieve with the publication of the play now that Uri Gowda and Nanje Gowda have been emphatically proven to be fake, he said, “I think I have managed to create enough hatred against Tipu so that no one like Siddaramaiah or H.D. Kumaraswamy [former Chief Minister of the Janata Dal [Secular]) idolise him again.” like Siddaramaiah or H.D. Kumaraswamy [former Chief Minister of the Janata Dal [Secular]) idolise him again.”