It's always about politics: Here's why Karnataka is raging over govt's plans to celebrate Tipu Sultan Jayanti
Coorg was directly affected by Tipu's tyranny. His occupation of the tiny kingdom, those days ruled by the Haleri dynasty, was marked with destruction of temples, killing of what Tipu called infidels, and mass conversions
The Karnataka government’s decision to celebrate 10 November as Tipu Jayanti flies in the face of history and has deeply offended the people of Coorg, Mangalore, and parts of Kerala who regard Tipu Sultan as a tyrant who destroyed temples, killed non-Muslims, and forcibly converted tens of thousands of conquered people. Various parties and organisations have already taken out protest processions and 10 November, is being observed across Coorg district as a black day.
Chief Minister Siddaramaiah has dismissed the protests as a conspiracy by communal forces. The BJP and Hindu organisations, though not leading the protests, have seen an opportunity here. But, the fact is that most Coorgs are hurt and offended by the Karnataka government’s decision to celebrate Tipu Jayanthi. “He was a treacherous tyrant,” says CP Belliappa, Coorg-based writer of historical books such as Victoria Gowramma, the story of a Coorg princess adopted by Queen Victoria.
Coorg was a direct recipient of Tipu’s tyranny. His occupation of the district, those days ruled by the Haleri dynasty, was marked with destruction of temples, killing of what Tipu called infidels, and mass conversions. According to Belliappa, Tipu, then at war with the Coorgs, said he would cease hostilities and suggested that the Coorgs come to a place near Bagamandala, near the birthplace of the River Cauvery, to discuss terms of peace. That was a trap. The Coorgs, when they arrived, were ambushed, rounded up, and taken away to Srirangapatna. There, they were circumcised and forced to eat beef.
Evidence of Tipu’s deeds in Coorg comes from within his own court. Tipu’s biographer and courtier Mir Hussein Kirmani wrote about Tipu’s exploits in Coorg in his The History of Tipu Sultan, "The conquering Sultan dispatched his Amirs and Khans with large bodies of troops to punish those idolaters and reduce the whole country (Coorg) to subjection. They attacked and destroyed many towns. Eight thousand men, women, and children were taken as prisoners. They were collected in an immense crowd like a flock of sheep or herd of bullocks."
In a letter to the Nawab of Kurnool, Tipu claims he took 40,000 Coorgs as prisoners and forcibly converted them to Islam and incorporated them into his Ahmadi corps. Many of the descendants of Tipu’s converted Coorgs still retain their original Coorg family names.
Tipu also went about destroying temples in Coorg. To protect the Omkareshwara temple in Mercara, residents of the town knocked down its towers and replaced them with domes. The temple retains the domes even today, striking testimony that has survived over the ages. According to the Mysore Gazetteer of the time, when Tipu was finally vanquished, only two temples in his kingdom performed daily pujas. The Gazetteer estimates that Tipu destroyed around eight thousand temples in South India.
Tipu did on occasion display a benign attitude to his Hindu subjects. For instance, a temple at Sringeri was a beneficiary of his largesse. This cannot be disputed. He also fought a couple of wars with the British, for which politicians, more than historians, place him in the league of freedom fighters. A rather fanciful novel by Bhagavan Gidwani and a dramatic play by Girish Karnad, based on Gidwani’s book, help add to the narrative.
But these are fiction, according to Sandeep Balakrishnan, author of the definitive work titled Tipu Sultan, The Tyrant of Mysore. Balakrishnan says in a recent article that the gifts to Sringeri Mutt were meant to placate Hindus, who he feared would rise against him. It came at a time when Tipu had been drubbed during the Third Anglo-Mysore war of 1791. With the Marathas gaining in strength, the last thing he needed was to upset the Hindu majority among his subjects. Similarly, while he fought the British, he aligned himself with the French, whose Indian aspirations matched the British in greed and ruthlessness.
If Tipu’s actions in Coorg were questionable, his actions in Malabar were said to be worse. Portuguese missionary Father Bartholomew wrote in his book, Voyage to East Indies, “Women and children were hanged in Calicut, first mothers were hanged and their children tied to necks of mothers. That barbarian Tipu Sultan tied naked Christians and Hindus to the legs of elephants and made the elephants to move around till the bodies of the helpless victims were torn to pieces.” After the pillage of Calicut, Tipu wrote to his generals: “Almost all Hindus in Calicut are converted to Islam. Only on the borders of Cochin State a few are still not converted. I am determined to convert them also very soon. I consider this as Jihad to achieve that object.”
Back in his capital Srirangapatna, a few kilometres east of Mysore, Tipu made far-reaching changes to how his kingdom functioned. For instance, he changed the official language from Kannada to Farsi; he renamed cities and towns that had Hindu names; he changed weights and distance measurement to an Arabic system; he changed the calendar, reducing the year to 364 days, and even gave new names for the shorter months, Hindu courtiers, with one notable exception, were replaced. He also exempted Muslims from paying taxes. He reversed a decision by his father Hyder Ali not to levy taxes on temples.
The Coorgs helped end Tipu’s rule. According to Belliappa, the Coorgs wanted revenge and were ready to fight against Tipu. The British did not accept their services. While the Coorgs were ferocious on the battlefield, they lacked the discipline and training that the British needed in their armies. But the Coorg king and his subjects allowed the small kingdom to be used as a path for the English frontlines to be supplied. They protected the road and drove the bullock carts themselves.
Around 2,000 letters were discovered after Tipu’s death in 1799, written in his own handwriting. In them, Tipu frequently calls Hindus kaffirs and infidels. He also refers to Christians, mainly the British, who need to be cleansed or converted if Islam is to be established in India. So, when Chief Minister Siddaramaiah makes the astonishing claim that Tipu Sultan was a secular ruler and a model king, he ignores the huge array of historical evidence that says the opposite. But then, Tipu Jayanthi was never really about celebrating history. Says BJP, state media-in-charge Prakash Sesharagavachar, “The need to celebrate Tipu Jayanthi is political motivated. It is not supported by historical fact, which clearly paints Tipu as a tyrannical ruler.”
It’s always about politics.
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