Why the Protests Over Tipu Sultan Are So Misplaced

"The Last Effort and Fall of Tippoo Sultaun," by Henry Singleton, c.1800. Credit: Sothebys.

“The Last Effort and Fall of Tippoo Sultaun,” by Henry Singleton, c.1800. Credit: Sothebys.

The best way to understand what the Tipu Sultan controversy is all about is to see who is at the forefront of the protests against the observance of his birth anniversary – the Bajrang Dal, Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bharatiya Janata Party. Collectively the Sangh parivar has made a fine art of using historical grievances, real and imagined, for the purpose of political mobilisation.

History, is of course, a great place to look for wrongs. At some point or the other, every section of society has suffered at the hands of some other. Jains and Buddhists versus Hindus, Saivites versus Vaishnavites, Muslims versus Hindus, Brahmins and so-called lower castes, women, and of course, the perennial sufferer, the Dalit.

If history is your guide, there can be no peace in the world. The Chinese must fight the Japanese, the Russians cannot have peace with the French and the Germans, the British must finish off the French and the whole world must stamp out the Mongols.

Applying modern norms and beliefs to medieval events is a mugs game, but it’s a very useful one in contemporary Indian politics. After all, the sangh parivar successfully convinced the masses that Lord Rama was actually born in our world at a place called Ayodhya and at the very spot where the Babri masjid stood, in the process harvesting considerable political dividends for the BJP.

Now, the target is Karnataka and in Tipu Sultan the sangh believes it has found a convenient villain.

Let’s be clear, by the standards of today, the Tiger of Mysore was hardly loveable: he could chop off the heads of those he did not like, torture them, issue commands that had to be obeyed at the pain of death. But so could all rajas and sultans. In India and other countries around the world.

Historical personalities have to be seen in the context of their times, where war was the norm and in fighting such wars, there were no holds barred. There were no Geneva Conventions limiting war, everything was permitted and everything happened –murder, massacre and mayhem. Tipu, at various times fought the British, the Marathas, the Nizam of Hyderabad, even as he sought to consolidate and expand his kingdom at the expense of the rulers of Travancore and Coorg. The latter was a particularly difficult campaign which became a guerrilla war which even to this day, tends to be fought in a “dirty” way.

“Tippoo’s Tiger” was made for Tipu Sultan, ruler of Mysore in South India (1782-1799). The almost life-size wooden semi-automaton consists of a tiger mauling a prostrate figure in European clothes. An organ is concealed inside the tiger’s body, and when a handle at the side is turned, the organ can be played and the man’s arm simultaneously lifts up and down. Intermittent noises are supposed to imitate the wails of the dying man. The tiger was discovered by the British in the palace at Tipu Sultan’s capital after the Siege of Seringapatam in 1799. The invading army stormed through a breach in the ramparts and, in the ensuing chaos, Tipu and a great many of his soldiers, generals and the citizens of the town were killed. The victorious troops then rampaged through the city, looting valuables from the palace and from private houses.
Credit for caption and image: Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

A lot that has been written negatively about Tipu comes from British sources. They were, of course, his bitterest enemies. Tipu challenged the British on land, at sea and even sought to ally with the French against them. He was eventually defeated and killed. Those who won produced histories that favoured themselves.

Tipu’s kingdom was no democracy, he was a sultan with ambitions of becoming a badshah; he was a devout Muslim and viewed his kingdom as an Islamic entity. But, as historians have repeatedly pointed out, his handling of the Malabaris and Kodavas was part of the almost continuous contest for power between warring kingdoms. The killing of defeated adversaries, forced conversions and destruction of temples were all with the view to establishing his authority. Historians have also pointed out the grants and support of temples and Mutts by Tipu, his unIslamic penchant for astrology. Tipu employed many Hindu ministers. The ambiguity of contemporary statecraft is best brought out by the incident in which Tipu provided aid to the Sringeri Mutt after it had been raided and sacked in 1791 by a Maratha army. The point is that Tipu lived in his times, and it is ahistorical – and eventually foolish – to judge him by the standards of today.

Were the Sangh parivar to do so uniformly, it would have to ask Prime Minister Modi to cancel his visit to the United Kingdom. Through the period of their rule in India, the British were responsible for many atrocities. Unfortunately, most Indians have forgotten what the “civilised” British officers, Colonels James Neill and Henry Havelock did in Delhi and, especially Lucknow and Allahabad, following the failure of the Great Rebellion. Even in the 20th century, the British carried out terrible atrocities, remember Jalianwalla Bagh?

There can be little doubt that Tipu Sultan was a striking historical figure and for that reason alone, Karnataka is right in observing his birth anniversary. The opposition that is being manifested is rooted in contemporary politics. After all, why did we not see it in earlier times – say the 1920s, or the 1950s and 1970s?

Grievance history is not unique in the world, and neither are its uses as is evident from Chinese policy with regard to Japan. It is a useful tool of political mobilisation and shaping national identities. But the sangh parivar’s effort to change Indian national identity to an exclusively Hindu one is fraught with all manner of danger for the simple reason that it will trigger a counter-grievance of those left out of its pale.

Our founding fathers gave us an “Indian” identity, one which was forged in the freedom struggle and  tempered by its opposition to a movement seeking an exclusive identity for the country’s Muslims. A similar demand for exclusive identity cannot now be sought for the country’s Hindus without shredding to bits the compact of 1950, also known as the Constitution of India.

  • Shrikant Barve

    This time it is not BJP or Sangh Parivar but Congress is making the issue by celebration.

    • anandashtekar

      Yes, it is the other side of the same coin.So do not sympathies with any political party or social organisation.Wisdom can lead you to the unbiased and emotionless clear path to find the truth of peace for society and every body. one shall not be a fan of an individual.or ideology blindfold. I recommend every body should see the documentary ‘ ENEMY OF REASON’ by Richard Dockins.

  • Vaibhav Laddha

    How does anyone get votes by obfuscating and twisting history is completely beyond me. The BJP, Congress or whoever does this merely does this because people have an apetite for this. They would surely not have done this if nobody took the issue seriously, would they have?

    • sicunder kahn

      it’s easy to twist history when people dont know it.

  • forsanity

    While history should not be judged through contemporary norms, neither should contemporary times be sullied with historical reiterations. I smell a rat in the way the Congress decided to hurriedly celebrate Tipu Jayanti. Shouldn’t the authorities leave well enough alone? It reeks of opportunism on the part of the Congress. The overarching point of course can be: shouldn’t the people know better? But people don’t. There are so many grievances of all kinds welled up in people all over the place, that a drop is enough to make it overflow. Why do the so called leaders do it? It is purely to reap the benefits of the fallout. On both sides.People are fools. And the authorities take advantage of their foolishness. Only thing one can do is to blame the ones who started it.

  • mksharma62

    This author admits that Tipu was a religious bigot, converted many forcibly, etc. if not in the words of mine. Then why should the government celebrate his birthday? when Tipu fought British, the British were not yet rulers of entire India and they were only on the road to it. It was the native rivalries that gave them the opportunity and temptation and chance of victories. The French whose side Tipu took, whose aid he aspired to, were also equally ruthless. Both French and British played their games and British succeeded. We can denigrate British in thousand words, but they were more civilized than Tipu. They did not circumcise or forcibly convert any but they only looted and committed atrocities. If they were bent on forcible conversions, the Christian population in India would at least have been 15-20% by now. Of course the 1857 rebellion thwarted whatever aims and aspirations they had in that regard. From then onward they were doubly careful not to unnecessarily wound religious feelings of either Hindus or Muslims. It is to the credit of British Imperialism, and to nothing else in this world, that today there is a united political India (again divided into two parts by the same imperialists for their convenience). Indian nationalism, apart from regional and local loyalties, also owes a lot to the British occupation and then to the Indian National Congress and its efforts for home rule and then independence. Uniformly all educated sections in India had been admiring the British Rule till 1920s with few exceptions of sporadic and regional rebellions and breaks. So, to attribute the denigration of Tipu to the British writers and call them alone or mainly responsible for that is not correct. It is like saying the entire Hindu-Muslim conflicts in India is a British creation. No, British only tried to profit from the existing rivalries, and that naturally any imperialist and occupying country would do. There is no reason whatsoever for a government to declare Tipu Sultan as a nationalist hero and celebrate his birthday. If he died in the hands of the British [that again is doubtful], then one should also know that so many lakhs of Indians from other regions rejoiced at that death too. The Nizam of Hyderabad was a bitter foe. The Marathas were not disposed well and fought with him earlier. The Mysore Raja and the remnants of his dynasty were bitter foes. And we have already seen how Kodavas and Malabaris were and still are full of hatred toward him. So, it is very mischievous for the Congress government of Siddhiramiah to have wantonly and roguishly raked up this controversy by declaring such celebration. If at least 30-40% of the population of that State strongly opposes this move, I think more numbers are opposed to such move, it should be enough to immediately revoke that decision and declaration and leave the matter to be celebrated or denigrated by private parties alone. Then Tipu’s admirers have the right to celebrate and his detractors have the solace of conducting meetings and denigrating and both will be solely private enterprises and the government should not interfere.

    • PB

      “This author admits that Tipu was a religious bigot, converted many forcibly, etc. if not in the words of mine”

      There, there. You didn’t get the article. Go read it again.

  • http://journeys2remember.blogspot.in/ Poornapragna Gudibande

    Very well said. Every king in India wanted to safeguard his kingdom. Hindu kings have waged wars against another Hindu kingdoms and so are Muslim kings. The Indian identity started only with freedom movement. This agitation by Sangh parivar is misplaced.

  • Machaiah. K. A

    The Kodava issue is not one of the VHP and others though they have hijacked it to add impetus to the opposition. To ask a Community to forget something that still haunts them is just not fair. Moreover, the bigger issue in Coorg today is the audacity of the State Government to get in goons from outside Coorg to disrupt a peaceful bandh that would have gone off without any trouble if not for these State sponsored Goons. It has sowed bitter animosity between communities in Coorg. Nobody is denying that the protest was largely lead by the BJP and its affiliates. We the people voted the BJP to power in Coorg (2 MLA’s & 1 MP) and they had to respect the sentiments of its people. Why doesn’t anybody speak about the fact that the Congess Government tried to hit back on the BJP by using these goons and disrupting peace.? What happened to Democracy and a Citizens right to protest against the State? Why is the Congress doing what they accuse the BJP & others of doing? And why are they getting away with it?

  • Bopaiah Bopaiah

    It is not just Tipu. Coorgs would have protested even if the Government planned to celebrate Jayanthi of Other Lingayath Coorg kings like Chikka Veera Raja etc, who were ruthless, barbaric and sadistic towards Coorgs and Coorg Women like Tipu.

  • armunuskhuptankar nirmunchitap

    At least part of this piece has to be intended as comedy. Comparing the celebration of one individual oppressor’s birthday to visiting the modern day nation that historically committed oppression ? Perhaps the writer is aware of the sangh parivar secretly celebrating General Dyer’s birthday.

  • Bisi Samosa

    But why ‘celebrate” him ? after rall we are talking about an elected govt. using tax payers money for a frivolous cause.
    If his deeds are checkered like many despotic rulers then why sing his praises ? Just because he fought the British ? In that case sing praises of the French and Portuguese too, after all they too fought the British. You see faulty logic at play here. So, leave the history alone. Stop using it for insidious causes…

  • Arnab Chakraborty

    Well written article. Just adding a point: let those who feel it important to celebrate do so and those who protest also do so…just peacefully both ways…the death that occurred shouldn’t have. Any violence in civil societies should be shunned.

  • Tony Valachi

    Founding fathers? Just who were our founding fathers? Can you please explain what founding fathers are you talking about?

  • Pradx

    Manoj Joshi errs in the first paragraph by ignoring the fact that the Mangalore Catholics were among the people protesting. Extended sangh parivar?