Who Invented the Myth of Tipu Sultan “the Bigot”? 

A portrait of Tipu Sultan, painted in1792 A.D. by G.F. Cherry, at Dariya Daulat in Srirangapatna
A portrait of Tipu Sultan, painted in1792 A.D. by G.F. Cherry, at Dariya Daulat in Srirangapatna

Why history has been vindictive to Tipu Sultan, the valiant Mysore ruler and the first martyr of India’s struggle for Independence

NAJEEB SA | Caravan Daily

[dropcap]A[/dropcap] Muslim ruler who had provided annual grants to no fewer than 156 temples, who had helped restore the tradition of worship in “Sringeri Mutt” (established by the famed Hindu theologian Adi Shankara) after the ‘Marathas’ had invaded it, who had offered copious financial assistance to the Kanchi temple during its construction, who had retained the temple town of Srirangapatna as his capital throughout his reign, whose army was mostly composed of ‘Shudras’, who had supported building the first ever church in Mysore – how could he be projected as a religious bigot?

Tipu Sultan lived and died in an entirely different era when the lexicon held dissimilar insinuations than those of the present, when territorial expansions were the order of the day and engaging rebellions against authority, swiftly and decisively, were accepted norms of statesmanship.

Admittedly, those at the receiving end of Tipu’s indignation faced executions, mass migration and forced conversions that were intended to be harbingers for others who might be plotting insurgency. Such deportments, however brutal it would appear now, prevailed in the subcontinent from the medieval times. How fair then will be judging a Gothic ruler’s actions that fell within the propriety of kingship that prevailed over centuries against modern statutes of governance?

Apparently there is a concoction in the interpretation of history here, because facts and derivatives in history books do not add up.

The death of Aurangzeb in 1707 marked the decline of the Mughal empire. The new geo-politic that emerged soon resulted in the birth of disjointed states like Awadh, Bengal and Hyderabad, yet allowing an underlying power vacuum benefiting foreign traders who had by now started becoming obvious factors in the power equation of the region. Manipulative as it was, East India Company leveraged this situation to their advantage gaining strong footholds wherever there was a hiatus.

In the South, the ‘Company’ could not find their way as easily as they did in the North, because in Hyder Ali Khan they also met their match, nearly as motivated and ambitious as themselves. Khan is said to have sought the help of French military experts in organizing his army and formed a corps of European mercenaries as gunners in his artillery.

In 1766 with his eye on a port for the transfer of French weapons to fight the British, he invaded the smaller states in the Malabar belt effectively employing the combination of a Mughal model mobile cavalry and an infantry armed with fire locks and bayonets. The British tried to curb his regional expansions by joining hands with the Marathas and the Nizam of Hyderabad, but Khan played his cards close to his chest winning over both the British allies to his camp.

When Tipu was born in 1750, although Khan and his wife Fatima Fakhrunnisa had named him Fateh Ali, they began addressing him as “Tipu”, after the local saint Tipu Mastan Aulia, which later gained acceptance as his real name.

At the end of 1782 when Khan died from a terminal back ailment, Tipu succeeded him. But the son also inherited what historians call as the ‘Second Mysore War’ from his father. The period of transition from one ruler to another has always been vulnerable when the new ruler’s potency would be tested either by those with grievances or who wanted to disassociate themselves from his authority.

Kautilya’s (who had engineered the transfer of power from the Nanda dynasty to the Mauryas in 322 BCE) ‘Arthashastra’ (the Science of Material Gain) categorically states that if such challenges were not met promptly and conclusively, a ruler’s control over his kingdom would soon erode. Tipu quelled the revolts of the Christians in Dakshina (South) Kannada who were allies of the colonialists and the Coorgis of Kodagu who were waging a protracted guerrilla war against his command.

History has been vindictive to Tipu. As a matter of fact, he was a radical in more ways than one. He banned the consumption of alcohol in his state, not on religious grounds, but on ethical grounds and primarily in consideration of the well-being of his subjects. He introduced sericulture. He confiscated the property of the upper castes and distributed it among the untouchables.

He also sowed the first seeds of capitalism in the country at a time when feudalism was the accepted norm in the social calendar in the whole country. In 1796, he wrote to the Hyderabad Chief Minister, with blatant undertones of what is in the cards, should the ‘Company’ is allowed to pave inroads unchecked into the subcontinent. Tipu cannot be reduced into a run of the mill entry in the historic journal, because he represented a manifold of traditions and conventions.

Yet, why is he regarded as a tyrant by some and as a hero by others? Why is it that while Emperor Asoka, who is also known to have committed the same kind of brutality during his invasion of ‘Kalinga’, as Tipu is accused of, celebrated as “the great” (the emperor’s insignia is the centerpiece adorning the National flag) and Tipu a persecutor?

Is it because, among other things, some of his administrative reforms, like renaming of townships with Hindu names to those in Farsi, and re-calibrating the existing weights and measures to suit historical Islamic concepts, bore religious preferences? In fact, the culprits here are, partly Tipu’s colonial enemies and partly the mind-set of a predominant section of the population. While all the other native rulers accepted the Company’s call for placing a political agent in their courts without much hesitation, both the father and the son refused to give in to such clandestine maneuvers by the latter.

This was perhaps the final strand they were looking for to eliminate Tipu, who had by now become a thorn in their trading path, they could no longer afford to ignore. In 1798 with the arrival of a new spiteful governor general in Calcutta, in the form of the earl of Mornington, the heat was turned on Tipu.

With the Marathas and the Nizam already against him, and others bound to slavish routines, Tipu comes across as a braveheart who lead the fourth Mysore war from the front and gallantly embraced death in the battle field. However, some quarters in Britain, who had considered Tipu as a maverick and perhaps even a bohemian, doubted the legitimacy of Mornington’s actions.

In response, the governor general and his cohorts justified their attack on Mysore by portraying both the father and the son as belligerents and oppressors of their subjects.

That’s how the myth of Tipu the “Bigot”, as we know it, was created. Over the next two centuries, as the slogans of patriotism and self-rule dug deep into nationalist sentiments, Tipu became the first Muslim martyr. Apparently, the character of the myth was defined by need of the hour to suit the interests of those who created it. The irony is that only a few were gullible then, but more are now, without ever realizing it.



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