The Historiography of Medieval India Needs a Middle Way

Historians should reject both excessive focus on precolonial Islamic violence, as well as a secular whitewashing that is insensitive to local memories and histories.

Tipu Sultan confronts his opponents during the Siege of Srirangapatna. Credit: Wikimedia

Tipu Sultan confronts his opponents during the Siege of Srirangapatna. Credit: Wikimedia

Late last year, Karnataka’s celebration of Tipu Jayanti (the birthday of Tipu Sultan, ruler of Mysore from 1783 to 1799) was widely protested by Sangh Parivar activists. In the course of an altercation, one VHP activist was killed. The controversy over Tipu Sultan is not simply a pet cause for Hindu nationalists: Kodavas were subject to ethnic cleansing by Tipu in the 18th century and have conveyed their anger and hurt, as have Christian communities in areas subject to forced conversions and killings. The willingness of politicians and historians to venerate such figures sends a very ambiguous message to members of communities – whether Kodava, Christian, Sikh, Muslim, or Hindu – who were victim to their acts. What is the best way to overcome the feelings of grievance that these figures inspire?

Observers of Indian history have generally had to choose between one of two perspectives. The first is the view of Hindu nationalists, who have repeatedly exaggerated acts of violence and bigotry under Muslim rule, and called for retribution in the present. The second is from secular historians, who have largely treated the temple demolitions, forced conversions, and massacres of the medieval and early modern eras as anomalies or fabrications, and dismissed demands for restorative measures.

We argue for a middle way between these two extremes – one that rejects both excessive focus on precolonial Islamic violence, as well as a secular whitewashing that is insensitive to local memories and histories.

We believe that religious violence occurred quite often in India’s past; that it should be considered in the context of the times; and that this violence should be acknowledged, analysed, and discussed. The failure to come to terms with precolonial religious violence, though intended as a means to communal harmony, has had the opposite effect. By not acknowledging the traumas left by past events, secularists have allowed grievances to fester, to a point where the debate can no longer be avoided.

What Tipu did to the Kodavas

For example, let us begin by trying to understand why the Kodavas, in the southwest of Karnataka, were so enraged by November’s celebration of Tipu Sultan.

The simple explanation is that in 1785, Tipu waged a deliberate seven-month campaign to eliminate the Kodava as an ethnic group. Generals were dispatched across Kodagu to round up the population, bringing to the Mysore capital, in the words of court historian Mir Hussein Kirmani, “an immense crowd of these wild men, like a flock of sheep or herd of bullocks.” There they were given the choice of religious conversion or death. There is a thorny debate to be had concerning the precise number of Kodava who were killed, enslaved, or converted during this grisly episode, while remaining mindful of the sensitivity of this topic for the Kodava community today. Kirmani, writing just three years after the end of Tipu’s rule, claimed that “eighty thousand men, women and children” were enslaved, though when the British arrived at Tipu’s fort in 1799, they recorded only 12,000 prisoners remaining.

Some suggest that Kirmani’s estimate was exaggerated, and Tipu himself refers to just 40,000 captives in a later letter. Others point out that many Kodavas were released after their conversion, or escaped. More again, it has been observed, would have died in captivity, and Tipu’s own letters include instructions for mass killings. What we do know is that some number, likely between twelve and eighty thousand, were made captive or killed, and that, when the census was conducted a century later in 1901, only 36,000 ethnic Kodava remained in their ancestral territory. Not only colonial accounts but contemporary witnesses agree that the incident was a conscious and protracted act of violence with the deliberate goal of eliminating an ethnic community.

Today, few Kodavas occupy prominent university posts, or get to write opinion columns in publications such as The Wire. Yet their grievance remains. And in modern India, it remains as only one grievance among many.

The other group infuriated by the celebration of Tipu Sultan was the Christian communities of Canara and Malabar, who in the wake of Tipu Jayanti, found themselves pushed into an otherwise improbable alliance with the BJP. The reasons for such anger are well-documented in the writings of travellers, missionaries, Tipu’s own generals and courtiers, as well as the letters of Tipu himself. Following the siege of Kozhikode (Calicut), for example:

“temples and churches were ordered to be burned down, desecrated and des­troyed. Christian and Hindu women were forced to marry Mohammedans, and similarly, their men (after conversion to Islam) were forced to marry Moha­mm­edan women. Christians who refused to be honoured with Islam were ordered to be killed by hanging immediately.”

Contemporary sources also describe Tipu’s policy towards Hindus in the areas he acquired for his state. In a letter to his commander before the battle, Tipu commands him to “capture and kill all Hindus,” and the recently uncovered diaries of François Ripaud, who served in Tipu’s court, describe how before the siege, “over 7,000 Brahmin families” lived in Kozhikode, but, during the massacre “over 2,000 Brahmin families perished” as “most of the Hindu men and women were hanged.” Nor was mercy shown for the weak or infirm, as “mothers were hanged with their children tied to their necks.” In his hagiography of Tipu, Mir Hussein Kirmani switches to verse at this point, writing that “even from the rocks, trees, and stones,” “deep sighs arose, and wailing.”

Denial is counterproductive

So, these are the sensitive, painful, and divisive events that historians, politicians, and public intellectuals stir when they praise the record of Tipu Sultan, or propose the naming of monuments in his honour. In our previous article in The Wire, we suggested that denying the existence of historical grievance is unhelpful and counterproductive, and it would be better instead to acknowledge the past, and focus on breaking the link between grievance and hatred today. Acknowledgement, recognition, and reconciliation are likely to prove more successful means of overcoming communal tensions, in the long run, than attempts at suppressing collective memories. And better awareness of the past – and perhaps, better history – would also help to prevent politicians from stumbling blindly into such controversies in future.

Unfortunately, a recent response to our article puts forward several critiques, not only of what we said, but also, of what we did not say.

The first is that religious violence in medieval India was not a specifically Muslim phenomenon. It was not, and that is why we cited reconversions of Muslims by Sikhs, as well as the same accounts of medieval Hindu violence by Harbans Mukhia that are recited again in the response. We could also have mentioned the Goa Inquisition, or the persecution of Christian converts in early modern Travancore, or Kirmani’s lamentation of how during the Maratha invasion “idolators [Hindus] had plundered and burned the mosques and houses of Muslims.” India’s precolonial past is a well from which all can draw a stream of resentment.

A second critique of our position is that we must judge historical figures by the standards of the day in which they lived. But this ignores the fact that many rulers were widely condemned even in their own time. Shivaji, in a 1657 letter to Aurangzeb, praises the ecumenicism of Aurangzeb’s predecessors Akbar, Jahangir, and Shah Jehan, before warning Aurangzeb not to “discriminate against any religious creed,” and that “if Hindu people are subjected to misery, your empire will be reduced to ashes in the fire of their anger.”

Jahangir, the grandfather of Aurangzeb – who has constantly been at the centre of controversies over his rule – is reported by François Bernier as having proposed to settle a religious argument between Portuguese missionaries and Islamic scholars by lighting a fire and inviting them to prove the strength of their faith by jumping in (no one did). Aurangzeb’s eldest brother Dara Shukoh, who translated the Upanishads into Persian, might have been another good example of ecumenicism, were he not declared apostate, and then killed. And finally, while Tipu Sultan’s acts were condemned by his non-Muslim courtiers, such as François Ripaud, his father, Haider Ali, had served a Hindu king and was reported by German missionary Friedrich Schwarz as “perfectly indifferent” to “what religion people profess, or whether they profess any at all.”

A third critique of our article is that violence in the medieval period was “not all about religion.” Since this is yet another argument we made, we find this an equally odd response. To quote from our original piece: “Even if sectarian identities were not the only motivating factor driving this violence, they were clearly very important.” Our concern is simply that the standards of evidence used to dismiss sectarian motivations are weak, often risibly so. For example, it is typically observed that Muslims served in Hindu armies, and Hindus served Muslim rulers. Yet thousands of Indians also served in the British imperial army, and this hardly confirms the benevolence of colonial rulers. Second, it is frequently pointed out that even the most religiously chauvinistic rulers, like Aurangzeb and Tipu Sultan, sponsored Hindu temples and institutions. But even the most sectarian of rulers had to accept some syncretism, however grudgingly, in a de facto plural society. The question is why the same rulers also engaged in deliberately sectarian acts: why temples, once looted, had to then be destroyed; or, why conquered peoples, once defeated, forced to convert. The suggestion that temple demolition and conversion followed a logic of statecraft seems stretched given the resistance it provoked, and we would rather defer to the judgment of Irfan Habib that “forced conversions cannot be covered by any apologia.”

One final critique is that to focus on Muslim bigotry during the medieval period is to risk fanning the flames of anti-Muslim violence today. By contrast, we would argue that it is precisely by recognising the sectarian atrocities of the past, that we are best placed to avoid repeating such calamities in the present. Meanwhile there are still many practical measures that could help Indian Muslims, and other minorities, live in peace and security. Brown University political scientist Ashutosh Varshney points to the power of intercommunal associations. Steven Wilkinson at Yale University has suggested that constituencies be drawn so as to provide politicians with an electoral incentive to protect minority swing voters. One thing that is highly unlikely to help Indian Muslims, however, is to construct a version of the past that can easily be assailed as illegitimate.

Roberto Foa is author of a doctoral thesis at Harvard University on the legacies of Indian precolonial regimes, and has been advisor to the Shared Societies project of the Club of Madrid. He tweets at @robertofoa

Ajay Verghese is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Riverside. His research focuses on South Asian politics, ethnicity, violence, and historical legacies. His book, The Colonial Origins of Ethnic Violence in India, came out in March 2016 from Stanford University Press. He tweets at @ajayverghese