The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government announced that Tipu Jayanti celebrations will not be held this November, as was earlier made evident by Chief Minister BS Yediyurappa, barely a day after the party came to power in July 2019. The Tipu Jayanti event was first initiated by the Siddaramiah-led Congress government in 2015. Chief Minister Yediyurappa further said after a press conference in Bengaluru that lessons on Tipu Sultan will be dropped from state syllabus textbooks pending a “review". This comment follows BJP legislator Appachu Ranjan writing to Primary and Secondary Education Minister S Suresh Kumar, urging that the government drop references to Tipu Sultan from textbooks.

A lot has been said of Tipu Sultan; for over 200 years, he has been a controversial historical figure. 'Is Tipu Sultan a tyrant or a hero?' reads the title of an article on him. While there is one group trying to pay its respects to the ruler of the erstwhile princely state of Mysore, there is another bent on bringing him down and tarnishing his reputation.

To begin with, the binaries or the black-and-white nature of the debate do not do justice to the “myth” that has been made of Tipu Sultan, otherwise popularly referred to as the Tiger of Mysore.

Kate Brittlebank, a leading authority and scholar of Tipu, in her book Tiger: The Life of Tipu Sultan (2016) argues that to achieve an understanding of the man, we must first acknowledge that the world into which he was born was very different from our own. Brittlebank points to how the East India Company, its supporters, and the French, increasingly meddled in local succession disputes. The dramatic change wrought by European imperial ambition and the impact of colonialism is the backdrop against which Brittlebank examines Tipu’s life. The importance of historicism and immersion in 18th-century South India is of great importance to the scholar as well as the reader trying to understand how Tipu perceived himself and why he acted in certain ways at certain times. The book recognises that a range of factors, both internal and external, influenced his choices and decisions as ruler of Mysore.

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[Portrait of Tipu Sultan by an anonymous Indian artist in Mysore. Source: Wikimedia Commons]

Girish Karnad, the late author, scholar, theatre and film personality, wrote a Kannada play titled Tipu Sultan Kanda Kanasu (1997). It was later written in English by Karnad himself, as The Dreams of Tipu Sultan (2004). In the work, Karnad constructs the plot as a form of counter-history using colonial and native historians as characters. Imad M Khawaldeh and Shadi S Neimneh (2017) in their study, 'Reclaiming the Lost Hero in Girish Karnad’s The Dreams of Tipu Sultan' argue that Karnad writes to a contemporary audience, reminding them of Tipu Sultan’s valiant attempt at undermining the emerging colonial project by building an advanced and self-sustained country. These in turn become the very factors that led to his controversial and demonised image throughout history.

Here, Karnad subverts official colonial history by creating the characters of Mir Hassan Ali Khan Kirmani, the court historian, and Colonel Colin McKenzie, the British orientalist. But scholarship or readership has seldom captured popular imagination. Girish Karnad was forced to publicly apologise in November 2016 after he said, “Just like the airport in Kolkata is named after Subhash Chandra Bose, the airport in Bangalore could be named after Tipu.” Tipu Sultan was born in Devanahalli, the exact location at which the Bengaluru International Airport currently stands.

It is hard to come by straightforward history or literature about the man. Since a lot has been said about his religious or spiritual side already, focusing on the social and administrative reforms that the sultan brought in during his reign may help to gain a more nuanced understanding of him.

To begin with, the time and age in which Tipu Sultan was a ruler needs to be foregrounded. It is the late 18th century, and like other Indian rulers of the time, he was an autocrat. The Sultan was the supreme legislative, executive and judicial authority in his kingdom. He was his own foreign minister and personally dictated all important correspondences. He went as far as the war fronts too. Tipu led from the front and commanded the principal army. The generals who were sent out had to wait for his instructions. All this did not mean he was irresponsible when it came to the social aspects of his rule.

He had a high sense of duty to his office and believed that his subjects “constitute a unique trust held for God, the real Master".

He spared no expense when it came to promoting the welfare of the people either, and he was busy all day with various affairs of the State.

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[Caparisoned elephant walking right, Persian letter Te above Persian legend stating mint Nagar. Source: coinindia.com]

Tipu Sultan personally supervised every department of the government, and endeavoured to check the laxity, peculation and possible oppressive tendencies of the officers by inflicting upon them exemplary punishments. In the words of Mackenzie, Tipu “invigorated the whole system by principles of good government, and by an economic management of material resources to which those of any neighbouring power bore no comparison…” The frauds of intermediate agents were dealt with severe and exemplary punishments, writes Mohibbul Hassan in his book History of Tipu Sultan (1951). The Sultan protected the Raiyats (a peasant or agricultural labourer), who were chiefly of Hindu religion, from the enormities of the collectors.

The government’s activity was much wider than that of other Indian states. Most of the rulers were mainly interested in maintaining law and order and in defending their countries from invasion. Having observed that some European countries owed their greatness to commerce and trade, Tipu took it upon himself to be a trader, banker, manufacturer and money-changer all at once. Mohibbul Hassan compares Tipu to Muhammad Ali, the founder of modern Egypt.

He eventually adopted the role of a social reformer too; he banned the use of liquor and all other intoxicants in the kingdom. The French, with whom Tipu had joined forces, were permitted to open a shop in the camp for the French soldiers in the Mysore army. He prohibited persons of illegitimate or slave birth from marrying into respectable families. He forbade prostitution and the employment of female slaves in domestic service, and tried to stop the Nair practice of polyandry in Malabar and Coorg. At that time, women did not cover themselves above the waist and so Tipu decreed that no woman should go outside the house naked. He also abolished the custom of human sacrifice which was practiced in the temple of Kali Devi in Mysore town.

Tipu’s government was highly centralised. While officers were sent detailed instructions which they were required to follow, they were reprimanded if the ministers followed these instructions too literally, and if they did not act on their responsibilities.

Tipu called his government Sarkar-i-Khudadad (Government ordained by God).

This was not meant only for Muslims. While the Sharia law was applicable to the Muslims, Hindus were governed by their own laws, which Tipu never interfered with. So, rather than being theocratic, Tipu’s rule was about adopting the model of a God-oriented governance.

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[The Last Effort and Fall of Tippoo Sultaun by Henry Singleton. Source: Wikimedia Commons]

The age-old system of village panchayats was allowed to function without any hindrance. “The Mysore Government,” wrote Munro in 1790, “is the most simple and despotic monarchy in the world, in which every department, civil and military, possesses the regularity and system, communicated to it by the genius of Hyder and in which all pretensions derived from high birth being discouraged, all independent chiefs and zamindars being subjugated and extirpated, justice severely and impartially administered, a numerous and well administered army kept up and almost every department of trust or consequence conferred on men raised from obscurity, gives the government a vigour hitherto unexampled in India.”

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[Mysorean rockets were pioneering Indian weapons, as they were the first iron-cased rockets that were successfully deployed for military use in the world. Source: beditor.com]

Similarly, Moor wrote from personal experience: “When a person travelling through a strange country finds it well cultivated, populated with industrious inhabitants, cities newly founded, commerce extending, towns increasing, and everything flourishing as to indicate happiness, he will naturally conclude it to be under a form of government congenial to the minds of the people. This is a picture of Tippoo’s country, and this is our conclusion respecting its government.” It is with this preliminary understanding of Tipu and his policies that we delve into Tipu, the man and his dreams.

It is a known fact that Islam has a long and a rich history of dream interpretation. Medieval philosopher-theologians like Ibn Arabi (1164-1240) and Ibn Khaldun (1332-1402) furthered the early teachings of Ibn Sirin (d. 728) in their respective work on dreams. According to one of their views on the subject, the best dreams are those which come directly from God — clear and without symbolic ambiguity. Such dreams find a mention in the Quran and the Hadiths, and the sayings of the Prophet Muhammed mentioned by his earliest followers. Dreams that are bizarre, emotionally upsetting or morally improper are classified as demonic. Individuals who have such dreams are encouraged to ignore them. According to Ibn Khaldun, “confused dreams” come from Satan, because they are futile and Satan is the source of futility. On the other hand, according to Ibn Arabi, a dream or khayal is that which represents something between the real and phenomenal worlds, as do our imaginings. He also sees khayal as anything that provides a symbol for either reality or for some hidden meaning.

Many Muslims in the contemporary world still pay close attention to their dreams, hoping for signs of divine favour and guarding against demonic temptations. Key inroads can be made in the understanding of Muslim culture by studying dreams, and in the subject of historical continuity from the religion's founding through its “golden age” to its present age. In a similar vein, we stumble upon an interesting manuscript at the India Office Records, British Library. The document, titled Khwab-nama, kept by the East India Company contains Tipu Sultan’s dreams in his own handwriting. It was discovered by Colonel Kirkpatrick in the Sultan’s bed chamber after the fall of Srirangapatnam in 1799. Tipu is said to have had a peculiar anxiety while he was reading or writing in it. There are 37 dreams recorded in the book, and a majority of them concern the British and their allies. It is translated from the original Persian, the court language of the time. He interprets some of the dreams himself. The book also includes certain memoranda that relate to events from his life.

Examining one or two of his dreams should give us an idea of how much he valued freedom as an administrator.

In the first dream, which has been narrated crisply and is an example of the clarity and epigrammatic brevity of all his dream narrations, Tipu sees himself as challenging a Muslim officer in the Marhatta army for a dual and killing him at a stroke. It reveals his bravery and courage as well as his fantasy and ambition. The second dream involves him sighting the crescent moon the day before Eid. It is one of the shorter additions in the diary.

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[A tiger-headed hilt from the palace armoury of Tipu Sultan. Source: interactive.net.in]

Further additions involve “seating a king on the throne of Delhi”, where Tipu dreams of placing a general from another army as well as one of his own generals, Qutbuddin, to encamp in front of the “unbelievers". In his own words, if God wills, he would seat a king on the throne in Delhi which in turn would give strength to Islam. This statement could be interpreted either way, one that can portray him as a cruel and bigoted tyrant, or a wise and just ruler. It is important to understand who he is referring to as the unbelievers here. The “Marhattas,” who have been glamorised and valorised after the emergence of the Hindutva ultra-nationalists, had their own imperial agendas and objectives. To claim one of the kingdoms as more tolerant in religion than the other is to read history out of context and for the vagaries of the present times. There was no concept of “India” as a nation state then, and our land was but a collection of mutually repellent princely states and different rulers.

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[The first page of The Dreams of Tipu. Source: openlibrary.org]

The collection of dreams also includes a story about the 'Pitcher of Milk' presented to him by Rama Nayar , a leader of the Malabar insurgents, and a brief mention of the Sultan tasting the sweet and refreshing coconut water in 'The Sea Coconuts'. The 'Line of Entrenchments' shows us the passion that made the man and the strategist he was during key moments of war. The dream where Tipu receives relics from Hadrat Bandah-Nawaz is one of the few written records that reveal his spiritual side. There is a lot of other evidence that points to the “secular” (in its diluted sense of religious neutrality) nature of the Sultan’s reign, that is, the temples he built in every fort or place that he ruled from.

According to Mahmud Husain, who translated the book The Dreams of Tipu from Persian to English, he has been eulogised through the ages for the wrong reasons. While the court historians praise his scholarship and literary skill, the British historians have reviled his character. The British accepted the court historians' contention with regard to his scholastic achievements, while Husain is of the opinion that the facts prove otherwise. Tipu Sultan, from the age of 15 onward, was seen accompanying his father in the various wars that he fought. Naturally, Tipu could not receive a systematic education of the type he might have received had he lived elsewhere. Tipu can be admired for the many innovations he brought to India. He deserves to be understood as a ruler who preceded the imagination of a pluralist India — an India that we love to imagine, an India devoid of religious barriers or divisive politics.

The dominant note throughout his dreams is what was on top of Tipu Sultan’s mind: how to free his country from foreign rule. A dedicated researcher may find it crucial to note how Tipu Sultan interpreted his dreams and how they influenced his actions. From the book it becomes clear how the Sultan’s hours of sleep were as devoted to the cause of freedom as the hours while he was awake. In the meantime, the Sultan’s “Indian dream” lives on.

Ali Ahsan is a doctoral student of Literature at Ashoka University, Sonipat

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