Who Killed Tipu? Why Twisting Historical Facts Is the BJP's Only Route to Victory in Karnataka.

With nothing positive to show for its government, the saffron party is attempting to woo the Vokkaliga community in the poll-bound state with a false story of Tipu Sultan's rule.

That the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Sangh parivar create and spread false propaganda to achieve their twin goals of retaining political power and Hindutva-ising society has once again been made obvious by their electoral strategies in Karnataka.

In their latest onslaught on the history of Karnataka, much of which is marked by communal harmony, the Sangh has invented two warriors belonging to the dominant Vokkaliga community in south Karnataka and depicted them as the people responsible for killing Tipu Sultan. The killing is portrayed as the brave revenge of Hindus against what the Sangh calls Tipu’s “fanatic and repressive rule against the Hindus”.

Also read: Understanding Tipu Sultan, Warrior and Dreamer

These imaginary warriors have been deployed to serve two strategic purposes. One: To win the maximum possible seats in the Vokkaliga belt in the coming state assembly elections. Without these seats, the BJP state and central leadership have concluded, the party cannot win Karnataka on its own. And two: To expand and consolidate the Hindutva social base, especially among the Vokkaliga community.

If the Hindutva brigade cannot break the Vokkaliga community’s deep respect for Tipu Sultan, it will win neither of these goals.

The Sangh’s war on Tipu

Since the last year, members of the BJP and sympathetic media organisations have been circulating the newly-created myth that on the fateful day of May 4, 1799, during the Fourth Anglo-Mysore War, Uri Gowda and Nanje Gowda, two Vokkaliga warriors who never actually existed, killed Tipu.

This story first appeared in the Sangh’s WhatsApp ecosystem, then slowly made its way into mainstream newspapers sympathetic to the Sangh’s cause. By now, it has become a regular talking point for all BJP leaders on all occasions.

Portraying these imaginary men as the liberators of Mysore from Tipu’s rule, the Sangh bandwagon is even demanding installations of their idols in Mysore. Though this concocted and vicious narrative manufactured in the Sangh headquarters has not been given credence by the intellectual community and the people at large, it will only be a matter of time before it becomes part of the authentic history of Karnataka, no matter whether it is true or false.

The new myth is the latest addition to the concerted attack on Tipu Sultan that started in 2018 when the BJP government scrapped the annual Tipu Jayanthi celebration introduced by Siddaramaiah’s Congress government in 2015.

Just a few months ago, the famous Tipu Express, a superfast train running between Bangalore and Mysore, was renamed the Wodeyar Express. In December 2022, the BJP government changed the names of traditional rituals performed in historic Hindu temples like the Kollur Mokkambika Temple and the Melukote Cheluva Narayana Temple from “Salaam Arati” and “Deevatige Salaam” to “Namaskar Arati” and “Deevatige Namaskar”. These temples had been protected and funded by Tipu Sultan and the continuation of rituals reminding worshippers of Tipu’s patronage of the temples would counter the Sangh’s narrative of Tipu as a religious fanatic.

Last year, on the pretext of updating history with nationalist narratives, lessons on Tipu in school textbooks were either deleted or rewritten with a communal angle.

Also read: Units on Tipu Sultan, Constitution Reduced as Karnataka Govt Cuts School Syllabi

The recent invention of Uri Gowda and Nanje Gowda as heroic warriors is part of the Sangh’s calculated tirade and strategy to vilify Tipu Sultan and, as an extension, all Indian Muslims.

Three important questions arise from this latest attack on Tipu Sultan.

  1. How and why has the vilification of Tipu in the Vokkaliga belt of Karnataka become important for the BJP now?
  2. What does history say about the relationship between the agrarian communities of the region, including the Vokkaligas, and Tipu Sultan?
  3. Who killed Tipu on May 4, 1799?

General Lord Cornwallis, receiving two of Tipu Sultan’s sons as hostages in the year 1793. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Who killed Tipu?

I answer the question of who killed Tipu with the historical account of May 4, 1799, as it has implications for the Sangh’s grand project of “correcting history” elsewhere in the country as well.

What happened on the afternoon of May 4, 1799, was abundantly documented by Tipu’s foes – the British. The irony is, while the Sangh parivar and the BJP government make pompous claims about decolonising Indian history, their slanderous campaign against Tipu is a verbatim reproduction of the colonial British account of the Tipu regime.

To justify their treachery, plunder and conquest of Mysore, the marauding British had to portray the rule of Tipu and his father Hyder Ali as a repressive regime of religious fanatics. The Sangh uses each and every line from the colonial narrative to justify its vilification of Tipu Sultan, who was otherwise considered the last and most formidable challenge to colonial rule.

But even the colonial account of Tipu’s death never mentioned the existence of warriors named Uri Gowda and Nanje Gowda. Why? Because no such warriors existed. If Tipu had indeed been killed by the locals in revenge for his bigotry, the British would certainly have mentioned it in their narrative because it would have helped them justify their conquest of Mysore.

Books like The Journey From Madras Through the Country of Mysore, Canara and Malabar: A Documentation of Society and People of Mysore Province by Francis Buchanan, which was written immediately after the death of Tipu, the historical account of the last Anglo-Mysore war documented by Alexander Beatson and James Salmondor, the accounts written by locals like Ramchandra Rao Punganuri of the events of the 4th Anglo-Mysore War, and even the more recent account by C. Hayavadana Rao in 1946 of the Anglo-Mysore conflict, do not even mention these characters.

Every single one of the official, credible accounts of May 4, 1799, tells the same story: that Mir Sadiq, the commander-in-chief of Tipu Sultan’s army, colluded with the British and betrayed Tipu.

According to all the accounts of the war that I have mentioned in the paragraphs above, Sadiq facilitated the march of the British into Srirangapattana after breaching the unguarded fort at about lunchtime. Tipu Sultan, on learning that his commander Gafur had been martyred in the fight, rushed to the battleground with some of his confidants. It was late and the city of Srirangapattana was being ransacked and plundered by British soldiers, but Tipu put up a brave fight, killing many British soldiers.

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

However, when his beloved horse was killed and he himself was hit by musket balls, Tipu fell off his mount, whereupon British soldiers tried to seize his diamond-studded sword. When Tipu killed the soldier closest to him, the other British soldiers killed him immediately with their guns, not even knowing who he was.

Even the ballads in the folklore of Mysore, which are generally considered unadulterated historical truth, praise Tipu as a hero who died guarding the country while on a quest to liberate the peasants. If Tipu had been a tyrant and Uri Gowda and Nanje Gowda had existed and had liberated Mysore from bigotry, the local ballads would say so. But not a single ballad mentions these imaginary warriors or portrays Tipu as a tyrant. In fact, even the older right-wing narratives dished out by historians belonging to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and those sympathetic to the organisation do not mention the existence of Uri Gowda and Nanje Gowda.

It is thus clear that Uri Gowda and Nanje Gowda are imaginary warriors recently created by the Sangh. Incidentally, the names chosen for these imaginary men indicate their provenance. In Kannada, Uri means flame (of jealousy) and Nanju means venom!

Tipu and the Vokkaligas

The answer to the question about Tipu’s relationship with the agrarian castes throws light on the egalitarian reforms Tipu introduced in rural society and the bond that ensued between the regime and the people.

Scholars like the late professor B. Sheik Ali and the late revolutionary intellectual Saketh Rajan established that the Tipu regime was one of the most progressive and early anti-feudal pro-farmer regimes, not only in the history of Karnataka but also in the history of the whole Indian subcontinent.

In Making History, a well-researched scholarly treatise on the people’s history of Karnataka, Saketh Rajan, based on the works of Prof. Sheik Ali and the original writings of Francis Buchanan, as well as scores of other historians, explained the revolutionary land reforms that Tipu had introduced in Mysore Province.

For example, clauses 11 and 12 of the land revenue regulations introduced by Tipu state:

“A Patel has been attached to every village from times of old; wherever it happens that the person holding this office is unfit for it, another who is capable shall be chosen from amongst the Ryots and be appointed to it; and the former Patel shall be reduced to the condition of a Ryot and be made to work at the plough, and the business of the office of Patel shall be made over to the new ones. The Shanboges of the Atthavanam [royal household] and Ahashaum [low marshy tracts] shall not be employed in the direction of affairs, nor shall farm villages be given to them, but they shall only be employed in keeping accounts.”

Buchanan observed:

“The office of the Gauda was originally hereditary; but now these persons are appointed by the Amildar, and continue in place so long as they keep up the collections to their supposed value, or until some other man undertakes, by bringing a greater number of farmers, to make the revenue more productive.”

According to Buchanan, clause 5 of Tipu’s land revenue regulations state:

“The Ryots are not to plough the lands of the Patels; but the Patels shall themselves plough them. If any Patel, &c., shall in future employ Ryots to till his ground, the whole of the produce shall be taken by Government. His lands which have been cultivated for a length of time by the Shanboges, shall be refused, and be delivered over to other Ryots to cultivate; and if such Shanboges shall desire to have other land given to them in lieu of their wages, land which is lying waste shall be given to them; if they do not ask for land, they shall receive their wages in money, according to the established rate.”

These are just a few of the many revolutionary reforms introduced by Tipu which liberated the agrarian castes – including today’s Vokkaligas – from feudal tyranny. Hence Tipu was perceived by the agrarian castes as their hero and liberator and not as a tyrant or a bigot. In fact, farmers voluntarily enlisted in Tipu’s army to fight the British who they considered to be enemies of the agrarian castes. The only people who perceived Tipu as a tyrant were the colonial British and the Brahminical feudal castes who lost their privileges due to his reforms.

That the agrarian castes had a deep respect for Tipu could also be seen in the way the British dealt with Tipu’s army after he was killed. While most defeated armies across the subcontinent were merged with the British army, Tipu’s army was disbanded due to the warriors’ strong anti-British sentiments. In fact, even after the fall of Tipu, many commanders and soldiers of his army waged a guerrilla war against the British in parts of Karnataka with the support of local agrarian castes.

A history of harmony

The relationship between the Vokkaligas and Tipu paved the way for a strong and harmonious relationship between Hindus and Muslims in the region. This became a tradition followed by Nalmadi Krishnaraja Wodeyar, who ruled the Mysore province in the early 20th century. Wodeyar introduced reservation policies for non-Brahmins, including the Muslims and Vokkaligas, in the 1920s, which broke the Brahmin domination in the provincial administration.

Later, after independence, even when the Vokkaligas became the dominant caste in rural Mysore and politically powerful in state politics, they allied with Muslims against the more dominant Lingayat community of north Karnataka.

Later still, closer to today, when the Vokkaligas sought an alternative to the Congress party, they turned to the Janata Dal (Secular) (JD(S)), which articulated a strong electoral alliance of Vokkaligas and Muslims.

Tipu’s legacy in Karnataka was so strong that even when the RSS expanded its bases in the region, it understood that strong anti-Muslim rhetoric would be of no use. This is why, even a few years ago, BJP leaders like Yediyurappa, Jagadish Shettar and Ashok (a member of the Vokkaliga community), wore replicas of Tipu Sultan’s headgear and waved replicas of his sword while celebrating Tipu Jayanthi.

The second fall of Tipu

All this changed after the second victory of Moditva in 2019, for which votes were not sought on welfare promises but purely on the need for a Hindu rashtra. The upwardly mobile Vokkaliga strata were slowly co-opted into a sense of Hindutva pride. This was even reflected during the previous assembly elections where some articulate Vokkaliga websites run by the IT professionals of the community tried to popularise the slogan “Modi for the Country and Kumaranna (referring to H.D. Kumaraswamy, son of H.D. Devegowda, the iconic leader of Vokkaliga community) for the state.”

Also read: BJP Protests Tipu Jayanti Celebrations in Karnataka

In the 2019 general elections, the BJP did well even in the Vokkaliga belt and surpassed the Congress vote share to reach 52%, in spite of the alliance between the Congress party and the JD(S). All the candidates who had spewed venom against Muslims were elected by a thumping majority in Karnataka and the rest of India.

This emboldened the BJP to launch a strategic offensive and in the process, many Congress and JD(S) members of the legislative assembly from the old Mysore areas belonging to Vokkaliga and equivalent castes defected to the BJP and helped the saffron party form the government in Karnataka in 2019, with Yediyurappa as the chief minister. In 2021, Yediyurappa, who had an independent following in the party, was made to resign and Basavaraj Bommai, an obedient follower of RSS diktats, was made the chief minister.

Why villianise Tipu?

This brings us to the last question. Why the accelerated attempts to vilify Tipu and woo the Vokkaliga community with imagined icons?

Since the state entered election mode, the RSS and the BJP have unleashed multiple strategies to wean the Vokkaligas from their social alliance with Muslims. Even though the Hindutva strategy yielded good results in the Lok Sabha elections, the BJP is still far from a clear victory in the state elections.

This is because the people of the state view the Bommai government as a failure in both governance and delivery. For example, the government has been accused by the contractors’ association of demanding a 40% commission for every building project. It is also mired in the Police Sub-Inspector recruitment scam.

Karnataka chief minister Basavaraj Bommai. Photo: Twitter/@BSBommai

The administration also failed to meet the needs of distressed farmers during the floods in 2022 and failed to get Karnataka its rightful share of Central resources. There are internal squabbles in the state cabinet and the government has blatantly shown its majoritarian bias in issues such as the correction of history textbooks, the hijab controversy, the azaan issue, the halal controversy, and so on, which has led to an appalling law and order situation.

Also read: No Govt Has Been Re-Elected in Karnataka Since 1985. Can the BJP Buck the Trend?

By now, the popular perception of the Bommai government is that it is possibly one of the worst governments the state has had in the recent past. The repeated visits of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union home minister Amit Shah to Karnataka as the state prepares for polls are considered by the people of the state as the reflection of a similar belief among the BJP leadership.

Though all these factors have created resentment against the incumbent government, one cannot see a wave against the party that is in government. While the failure of the opposition parties to meet the needs of the people is partly responsible for this, the impact of Hindutva propaganda also helps the BJP.

Since it is almost impossible to go before the electorate and claim that its government has done well, the party has resorted to the plank of aggressive communal polarisation – its time-tested strategy – especially in the Vokkaliga belt of Mysore region.

This is due to the fact that while the BJP has fared well in the Vokkaliga belt in Lok Sabha elections, similar success in state elections has been elusive. Even in the 2008 elections, which was the party’s best performance in Karnataka, it was unable to pass the halfway mark: it needed 113 seats out of the 224 seats in the assembly, but achieved only 110. In 2018, it won just 104  seats. In 2023, therefore, the party leadership believes that if it could win more seats in the Vokkaliga belt, it would comfortably form the government.

The historical ties between the Muslims and the Vokkaligas and the iconic image of Tipu among the Vokkaligas even today are thus the saffron party’s biggest hurdles in their quest for continued power. Only when Tipu is established as anti-Vokkaliga and anti-Hindu can all those who support Tipu be referred to as anti-Hindu.

Thus the state BJP president, Nalin Kumar Kateel, recently declared that Karnataka is home only to the devotees of Hanuman and not followers of Tipu. Another minister in Bommai’s cabinet, Ashawatha Narayana from the Vokkaliga community, told the Vokkaligas of the Mysore region to send Siddaramaiah to the same place that Uri Gowda and Nanje Gowda had sent Tipu Sultan.

If the BJP succeeds in vilifying Tipu to woo the Vokkaligas, the implications will go far beyond the 2023 state elections, because destroying Tipu as an icon means destroying the people’s dreams of an egalitarian order.

The people of Karnataka thus need to defeat not only the BJP at the polls but also the Uri Gowdas and Nanje Gowdas and the Uri (flame of jealousy) and Nanju (communal venom) that the Sangh is distributing abundantly in Karnataka.

Shivasundar is a columnist and activist in Karnataka.