The Karnataka High Court recently questioned the state government's logic behind celebrating the birth anniversary of Tipu Sultan, stating he was a monarch and not a freedom fighter as portrayed by the government. However, the Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed by a native from southern Kodagu calling Tipu Sultan a tyrant, who massacred people from different communities was disposed off by the high court and directed 'the petitioner to make a representation to the chief secretary to consider the objections raised and pass an order by 8 November with regard to the celebration of the birth anniversary of Tipu Sultan'. The court’s directive unfortunately might have little impact on the government plans for celebration, which is evident from Chief Minister Siddaramaiah’s recent statement to the press reiterating the government's commitment to commemorate 'Tipu Sultan Jayanti' on 10 November.
Now, if there’s anything that this controversy has taught us it's that we must unlearn everything that has been taught in schools for decades. Moreover, television series and popular narratives have romanticised the Tiger of Mysore — Tipu Sultan as a freedom fighter, who fought the British East India Company.
Let’s look at the facts: Mysore under Tipu Sultan was not under the occupation by the British East India Company, Tipu and his father Hyder Ali fought as sovereign rulers of Mysore and not freedom fighters under colonial occupation. Additionally, Tipu and Hyder Ali both sought to bolster territory and thus waged war with most of their neighbours, including the states of Hyderabad, Travancore, Tanjore, Maratha Confederacy and Kodagu (Coorg), who all at some point invariably allied themselves with the British to end persistent attacks from Tipu Sultan.
By the end of the Second Anglo-Mysore War (1780-1784), Tipu Sultan had managed to regain lost territory through the Treaty of Mangalore in 1784. However, his desire to conquer new territories triggered the Third and Fourth Anglo-Mysore wars, which he invariable lost to the combined forces of the British East India Company, Nizam, Travancore and Marathas. Like the other Indian kingdoms, Tipu Sultan had a European ally, namely Napoleon of France and some marginal support from the Dutch to suppress the British and their allies. However, it would be naïve to think that French or Dutch participation in Tipu’s campaigns were benign, if Tipu had won with French support, Mysore would have been a vassal of France if not a French colony, and I would be writing this article in French, not English.
Another deeply contested issue is Tipu Sultan’s deplorable conduct against civilians during his campaign in Kodagu and Travancore. On the pretext of negotiating an end to the Kodava rebellion in the 1780s, Tipu surrounded and attacked the Kodavas killing many and imprisoning close to 1,00,000 men, women and children in Srirangapatna, invariably subjecting them to forced conversion to Islam, torture and conscription into the ranks of the military. During the same time, similar acts of violence and imprisonment were committed against the Nairs of the Malabar and the Catholics of Mangalore. Their liberation came only after the fall of Tipu Sultan during the Fourth Anglo-Mysore War in 1799.
Now with the looming Legislative Assembly election slated in the beginning of 2018, the Congress government’s motive in commemorating Tipu Sultan Jayanti is solely a political move to appease the Muslim electorate in Karnataka, especially the electorate in the old Mysore areas whose votes have always been divided between the Janata Dal (Secular) and the Congress parties, a consolidation of these votes would be a boost for the Congress in the state. However, it is unfortunate that this comes at the cost of the sentiments of other inhabitants of the state who view Tipu Sultan as a bigot and tyrant that should have been left to rest in peace.
Moreover, the government seems to have disregarded factual accuracy in their haste to commemorate Tipu Jayanti on 10 November, many academics and historians have criticised the government for historical inaccuracy and claim that Tipu’s birthday falls on 20 November, whereas 10 November happens to be the day he hanged 700 Iyengars in Melkote, thus again questioning the motives of the state government.
While Tipu Sultan is undoubtedly a divisive figure in the state, the Chief Minister of Karnataka has clarified that the celebration of his birthday would continue as a state policy and has also assured security in case of threat to peace and harmony; he has also called on officials and the police to carry out preventive arrests of known trouble-makers in the state. However, gauging from last year’s violence (in Chitradurga) and the opposition to the celebration from the BJP and RSS, the stage is set for another face off between different political and religious factions in the state.