Row over Tipu Sultan Jayanti celebrations in Karnataka: Who really was Tipu? Usurper or saviour of Mysuru?

Editor's note: This article was originally published on 6 November, 2016. It is being republished in light of the celebrations and protests underway across Karnataka on the occasion of Tipu Sultan Jayanti. Catch all the LIVE updates here.

Vote bank politicking is always toxic. It polarises communities and generates hatred and violence. And most often innocent bystanders end up as the victims of collateral damage.

Tipu Sultan figurehead on a state float. File photo/PIB

Tipu Sultan figurehead on a state float. File photo/PIB

And this is exactly what happened last year, when the Congress-led government in Karnataka decided to celebrate for the first time, the birth anniversary of the controversial Tipu Sultan — erstwhile ruler of Mysore.

As news of the celebrations spread, riots broke out all over the state.  Members of various aggrieved communities who had documentary evidence that Tipu had either massacred or forcibly converted their ancestors during his reign started the protests.  They were egged on by various political parties wanting to fish in troubled waters.  The most violent protests came from Kodagu (Coorg), one of the areas which was worst affected by Tipu’s brutal invasions and forcible conversions.

And, as usual, the saner voices of historians and other scholars got lost in the din.

It is not surprising therefore that the clamour has started rising once more as the Karnataka Chief Minister has announced that, come what may, he will be celebrating for the second year in succession the birth anniversary of the ruler who was viewed as a tyrant and mass killer by many. Petitioner KP Manjunath a resident of Kodagu requested the Karnataka High Court to stop this event, citing the violence it had generated last year.

The division bench at the High Court which heard the petition was headed by Chief Justice Subhro Kamal Mukherjee who during the preliminary hearing, asked the government why it was celebrating the birth anniversary of Tipu Sultan, “who was not a freedom fighter, but a monarch who fought the opponents to safeguard his interests”. The court also questioned the logic behind the Congress-led Siddaramaiah government’s plans when tensions are high and violent and clashes took place last year during the celebrations. However on Thursday, 3 November, the court disposed of the petition by putting the onus on the Chief Secretary. It said that since this was a policy decision by the cabinet, the petitioner should directly appeal to the government through the Chief Secretary and get a decision before 8 November.

The Court did not attempt to address the more fundamental questions of whether the government was right in spending taxpayers money on such a controversial event when the state was facing more severe and immediate problems….  Or whether it was correct to celebrate the birthday of an erstwhile king at such an expense in a secular country which has actually through Article 18 of its Constitution, abolished royalty.

Who really was Tipu Sultan? Usurper or saviour? Getty Images/File photo

Who really was Tipu Sultan? Usurper or saviour? Getty Images/File photo

So who really was Tipu? Freedom fighter? Social reformer? Secularist who donated largesse to religious institutions? Or was he a religious fanatic who forcibly converted thousands of Hindus and Christians into Islam? Was he a superb war strategist who used the famous indigenously made Mysore rockets to fight valiantly against the British? Or was he an ambitious ruler of his times whose perception of humanity and the value of human lives was very different from what it is today?  Was he an usurper of the kingdom of Mysuru or its saviour?

Probably he should just be viewed as a ruler of his times who did what any other ruler would have done to consolidate and expand his kingdom.

According to historian Richard Cavendish: “Tipu Sultan, the Tiger of Mysore, or Tippoo Sahib as the British called him, was the Indian ruler who resisted the East India Company’s conquest of southern India. Public opinion in England considered him a vicious tyrant, while modern Indian nationalists have hailed him as a freedom fighter, but both views are the products of wishful thinking. A small, plump man with a round face and black moustache, who wore clothes glittering with jewels, Tipu was vigorous, forceful, brave, warlike and cruel; a devout Muslim ruling a mainly Hindu population. He had inherited the throne from his father Haidar Ali, who had driven out the previous Hindu dynasty.”

No historian or politician can actually wish away the fact that Tipu was a cruel and ruthless ruler.  My own grandparents never celebrated Deepavali because it was on this auspicious day that Tipu killed our ancestors…. over 700 men, women and children belonging to the families of two of his Mandyam Iyengar pradhans who he believed had betrayed him.  They had been kept in dungeons for months on end until he found a symbolic day on which to annihilate them.  Their bodies were dumped in the Cauvery which, according to family legend, turned red with their blood. Tipu’s soldiers also ransacked their sacred temple at Melkote and stole the precious Vairamudi crown made of uncut diamonds.  The assault on this peaceful agricultural community forced them to abandon their lands and flee to safer places.  All this happened within the living memory of my great-great-grandparents

The killing of Mandyam Iyengars (the community to which Chief Minister Jayalalitha also belongs) is not recorded in most of the accounts of Tipu’s massacres probably because their numbers were few and the story was passed on to us only through oral history.  In comparison the annihilation and forcible conversions of thousands of Kodavas, Nairs, Namboodiris, Syrian Christians, Manglorean Catholics, Konkani Hindus and others has been documented by various contemporary historians and other narrators.

The point is bloody wars have been waged before that and will probably continue to be waged in the future.  History is history and we can neither wish it away nor brush it away.  But we should also not let politicians manipulate history or historical figures to suit their own agenda or for short term political gains.

Updated Date: Nov 10, 2017 14:17 PM

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