Who is the Rightful Owner of Tipu’s Wooden Tiger, India or Pakistan?


The artefact is currently displayed in a London museum; British human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson is urging museums in UK and US to return this and other objects looted from former colonies

Shaheen Nazar | Clarion India

AN article published recently in Dawn, Karachi, has set off an interesting debate. It talks about the loot and plunder that the British committed during their rule over India, and specially mentions the iconic wooden tiger of Tipu Sultan, the 18th century ruler of Mysore known for bitterly opposing the British rule in India and sacrificing his life defending his fort of Srirangapatna, in present-day Mandya in Karnataka.

The wooden mechanical tiger was shipped to Britain after Tipu’s death in the battlefield in 1799. The looted item is on display, along with other ‘stolen artefacts from various colonised countries’, in Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

According to Dawn columnist Rafia Zakaria, British human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson has been leading an initiative that is urging British and American museums to return looted objects they have pilfered from around the world.

Tipu Sultan, the 18th century ruler of Mysore known for bitterly opposing the British rule in India

Zakaria wonders whether the British government will succumbs to Robertson’s campaign and agree to return the mechanical tiger, which stands atop the body of a British soldier. It is an example of 18th century mastery. The top of it opens to reveal a musical instrument which can still be played, according to Zakaria. It is displayed next to some of Tipu’s clothes and his turban.

Who is the rightful owner of the masterpiece and where should it go–India or Pakistan? Zakaria believes Pakistan deserves it.

“That was more than 200 years ago, and it is time that the tiger came to Pakistan, which, being the Muslim successor state after colonial India, should have a right to it.”

Tipu Sultan, born in November 1750, is celebrated as a hero of colonial resistance. He ruled the kingdom of Mysore from December, 1782 till his death in 1799. He was a strong, assertive leader, committed to strengthening his power. He established Mysore as a kingdom independent from the Mughal empire (which controlled much of the Indian subcontinent from 1526 to 1857), and attempted to develop industries and new alliances in Europe.

The tiger, it must be reiterated, was Tipu’s symbol, displayed on all of his swords and armour and his throne. Even the bronze grenades made for his armies were in the shape of a tiger’s claw. It was a symbol of resistance for a man and an army that were unwilling to simply cede to the British.

Zakaria urges her government to stake claim to the wooden tiger. “It is crucial and necessary and advisable for the government of Pakistan, like the governments of other countries whose artefacts are displayed in the British Museum, to send a formal request that the tiger be returned,” wrote Zakaria who otherwise is a lawyer and teaches constitutional law and political philosophy.

Zakaria’s column has attracted close to 150 responses. Overwhelming majority is sceptical.  However, there are some voices of support as well.

“By what logic does the tiger belong to Pakistan? Tipu Sultan was an Indian King. There was no Pakistan at the time he was killed and the tiger taken to England. Anyways, it is not coming to Pakistan,” wrote ‘Pathanoo’.

‘Siddhartha-Kolkata’ commented: “Rafia is a fantastic writer but I do not agree with her argument in this matter. If that’s the case, then Pakistan should transfer all the artefacts from Mahenjodaro and Harappa to India because they carry the symbols of the Vedic civilization which is the pillar of Hindu and Buddhist religions in this subcontinent.”

“Something doesn’t add up here. How can artefacts of ‘A man who tried to unite Indians’ be returned to Pakistan ‘being the Muslim successor state’,” said ‘Bipin’.

“Tipu was a South Indian. None in current Pakistan has any knowledge of him. Current Pakistan was created out of North-Western parts of the subcontinent. Claiming his artefacts just because he was a Muslim is laughable,” wrote ‘Asif RL’.

“Tippu Sultan was an Indian. How can Pakistan claim his legacy? Moreover, India is home to more than 10% of Muslims of the planet,” commented ‘Biju .J’.

“Let’s also give back all relics from Mahanjodaro, Sikh shrines, Budhist artefacts!” demanded ‘Kusmo Dar’.

Another reader ‘Sana’ asked: “Do artefacts have religion? Should they be split retrospectively as per religious affiliation of the owners? Wasn’t Tipu Sultan a general to a Hindu king in India?

Some of the readers also raised the claim of Muslim majority Bangladesh which broke away from Pakistan in 1971. “If the Muslim successor gets it, why not it be Bangladesh?” asked ‘Niraj’. ‘Simanjit Singh Mann’, ‘Akash Singh’ and some others also raised similar questions.

Some claims were made on behalf of Mysore, as well. “Why Pakistan? If at all it should be returned to Mysore from where Tipu Sultan – the tiger of Karnataka – ruled,” said ‘K.P. Rao’.

Yet, some others suggested it should go to the descendents of Tipu. “Should go to Tipu’s children. I know someone who lives in Karachi,” said ‘THE MORNING STAR. MD’.

Some of the readers responded with sarcasm:

“Last time I checked Srirangapattam was in India, thousands of miles away from Pakistan” – ‘Hindustani’

“Apply the same logic. You can claim the whole India as Mughals ruled a large part of India” – ‘Raj’

“Probably you want Taj Mahal, too!” – ‘Surendra Sukhtankar’

“Pakistan should claim Taj Mahal, Kutub Minar, too…after all, these are also Muslim legacies…” – ‘Raja’

“Keep dreaming” – ‘Sachin’

The Dawn columnist has also raised a perennial problem that today’s Pakistan faces–corruption of the ruling class. She wonders where Tipu’s tiger will be kept if ever Britain hands it over to Pakistan.

“The question on the Pakistani side is where the tiger, and anything else that the British may return, would be kept and displayed. One terrible and annoying problem with historical artefacts in this country is that as soon as they are on Pakistani soil, or excavated from it, they are taken away and secretly purchased by the Pakistani elite.

“The pages of the original Akbarnama have suffered this sort of hiding and hoarding; the pieces of tombs from Chawkandi and the heads of Buddhist sculptures are all items I have seen displayed in drawing rooms.

“One worries, then, that even if the tiger were returned, it would never actually be seen by the public… One despairs that the tiger, once returned, would become part of the drawing room décor of the elite, and destroyed as it is transported and displayed and touched and battered and bruised.”

Readers took note of the author’s this worry as well. “You yourself say historical objects don’t have safety in Pakistan & then you want it back anyway… why?? Doesn’t make sense,” wondered ‘Gagan’.


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