November 16, 2015

India: Regarding Tipu Sultan (Chandan Gowda)

Bangalore Mirror

Regarding Tipu Sultan
Bangalore Mirror Bureau | Nov 13, 2015, 10.30 PM IST
by: Chandan Gowda

In wake of controversy around Tipu Jayanthi, it is pertinent to note that his many dimensions make it impossible for him not to be remembered

The recent controversy over Tipu Sultan's legacy showed, yet again, that deadly myths about the past can be brought alive and presented as history. These tactics are now boringly familiar.
Responsible historians never fail to counter such tactics with credible evidence even as important questions haunt them: Are bad myths better countered by good myths rather than by objective history? Are moral arguments more effective in overcoming communal propaganda than scholarly ones? How best do we tell a historical story to restore goodwill among communities?
Because the right wing offers its views as historical arguments, there cannot be any doubt about their investment in appearing historically valid. As long as this is so, scholarly refutations will continue to be necessary.
A recent thesis by Michael Soracoe, a doctoral student in history at the University of Maryland, USA, shows in detail how absolutely central the vilification of Tipu Sultan was for Britain to see itself as an imperial power in India. The large body of phobic material on Tipu that English officials, writers, painters, and cartoonists created in the last two decades of the 18th century, i.e. when Tipu challenged the English in successive military combat, cast him as a Muslim fanatic who shattered Hindu temples and converted local Hindus and Christians into Muslims. He was so ruthless, in these accounts, that it appeared only proper for the British to take over Mysore and save his subjects.
This new sense of imperial purpose replaced the earlier image of the East India Company officials, like Robert Clive and Warren Hastings, as corrupt and degenerate and not worthy of embarking on political rule in India.
Tipu continued to evoke images of cruelty and villainy in English writings all through the 19th century.
And, as we have seen, these images found ready consumers among the right wing Hindu activists. As we also saw in the recent panel discussion on TV, no one bothered to ask who wrote these books or how they were to be read.
For much of the twentieth century, most people in Karnataka saw Tipu as the Tiger of Mysore or encountered delightful stories of how he called Nanjundeshwara, the chief deity in the famous Srikanteshwara temple in Nanjangud ("The Kashi of the South"), Hakim Nanjunda, for curing his favourite elephant of an eye disease. (The emerald Shiva linga that he gifted to the temple is still worshipped). Children learnt about his bravery against the British in school. Even the 1979 comic book on Tipu Sultan in the Amar Chitra Katha, a series now known to have shared a Hindutva agenda, saw him as a brave Indian patriot, and not as a religious bigot.
The portrayal of Tipu as a patriot in Sanjay Khan's The Sword of Tipu Sultan, which was telecast on national Doordarshan in 1990, ran into opposition by communal activists. It has been a concerted campaign since, with anti-Tipu propaganda books appearing here and there.
Those protesting the Karnataka state's decisi on to commemorate November 10 as Tipu Jayanthi have accused Tipu of having destroyed life, property and temples in Coorg and converting the Coorgis and Catholic Christians in Mangalore to Islam. To this local geography the Malabar region of Kerala also came to be added.
These regions had their own rulers and were not part of Mysore kingdom. It should not surprise that Tipu, like the well loved Krishnadevaraya before him, or any other ruler, suppressed rebellions in territories he wished to annex. He is also engaged in three major wars with the British (and the Nizam and the Marathas) between 1780 and 1799. Insubordination would have been quelled in a period of tension and insecurity.
While conversions to Islam did occur in Coorg and Mangalore, there is no evidence of forced conversion to Islam anywhere in Mysore kingdom. Why did he convert them? Was it a form of political punishment? Which castes did he convert in Coorg? Why should this be a problem for the non-Muslims of Coorg? None of this is clear.
What is clear, however, is that the Wodeyar kings who became the rulers of Mysore after Tipu's death in 1799, never saw a problem in Tipu's political conduct. A Persian inscription of Tipu's, which was found during the construction work on the Krishnarajasagara Dam, was installed along with its Kannada and English translations at the entrance of the Dam when it was inaugurated in 1932. The inscription said that a part of the tax would be waived for the farmers using the irrigated water from any dam built on that site. While Tipu Sultan was not "a freedom fighter," he was not a ruler who only wanted to hold on to his kingdom, like, say, Rani Chennamma of Kittur. His letters to the Nizam reveal that he saw the British as a different kind of a political enemy against whom the rulers of the Deccan and South India had to work against.
Tipu's sense for global politics made him befriend the French as potential allies against the British. There was a nascent awareness of the British as a different kind of political enemy, which took clearer form in the nineteenth century His interest in the technological upgrade of his military equipment, which intimidated the British so much, has impressed those who value such advances in technology. Those favouring the modern state will appreciate that he also fine-tuned his revenue collection networks and was evolving a centralised bureaucracy.
Tipu's decision to fight the British and die on the battlefield - he was 49 years old then - when he could have tried to strike safe deals with the British like the several hundred other kings in the country came to do is not nothing. The many dimensions of Tipu should make it impossible for him not to be remembered.
The author is Professor of Sociology, Azim Premji University