Tipu Sultan.jpg

Tipu Sultan. (Image courtesy: Getty Images)
The Karnataka government’s decision to observe Tipu Sultan’s birthday has stirred a debate with the Right, led by the Sangh Parivar, slamming it and those on the other side of the ideological spectrum supporting it. 

As reported by TOI on Saturday, BJP dismissed the legendary Mysore ruler, who has inspired generations of patriots, as an anti-national. Its Mysuru legislator, Go Madhusudan, decried the move to set up a university in Tipu’s name and explained the logic behind branding him an anti-national: “Let’s not forget the recorded fact that he invited Afghan king Ahmad Shah Abdali to wage a war against India. This shows he was an anti-national and doesn’t deserve to be venerated.”

The BJP, in its zeal to paint Tipu in anti-national colours, didn’t realise the fallacy of its claim. The first time Abdali invaded India in 1748, Tipu was not even born. When Abdali defeated the Marathas at Panipat in 1761, Tipu was only a 10-year-old child and a hostage of Khande Rao, the Mysorean general who had hatched a plot with the Wodeyar queen mother to oust Hyder Ali, then the subedar of Dindigul and jagirdar of Bangalore. In fact, it was the Maratha defeat at Panipat that had helped Tipu’s beleaguered father to seize power in 1761.

Tipu Sultan did, however, seek an international alliance with Abdali’s grandson, Zaman Shah Durrani, Revolutionary France, Iran and the Ottoman Empire to throw out the British. Now, if he could be called anti-national for this, then we have to imagine the British as the rightful rulers of this country.

Historian Dilip Menon was aghast by this portrayal of Tipu Sultan. “Why does the BJP oppose the celebration of Tipu Sultan’s birthday by the Karnataka government? Historically, Tipu is a complex figure: supporter of the French revolution; anti-colonial warrior dying in battle against the East India Company forces at Seringapatam; enlightened monarch and supporter of scholarship. In short, one of the best of the 18th-century monarchs in India. However, amidst his campaigns, there were also stories of forced conversions of Hindus and destruction of temples which to modern eyes fit too well into a Muslim monarch in a Hindu society frame. In the 18th century, the Marathas were depredators of temples from east to south India, stationing troops in the garbha-griha (sanctum sanctorum) of major temples, melting temple metal for ammunition and so on. This was a period of war and normal rules didn’t apply, and marauders were no respecters of religious differences. Interestingly, the ideal monarch, Ashoka, ancient exemplar for modern India, self-confessedly killed hundreds of thousands of Hindus in war before converting to Buddhism. So will the BJP reject Ashoka? History means knowing context and not subscribing to polarising myths,” Menon said.

Military historian Mandeep Singh Bajwa was plain angry at this “lack of understanding” of Tipu. “Instead of making these empty noises, they should be studying the administration and warfare of Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan. Today, you have a hostile China and Pakistan as neighbours and a new violent order in the form of Islamic State is rising. Both Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan managed to stay independent for decades fighting the alliance of the British, the Marathas and the Nizam. Ultimately, the more experienced and professional British prevailed. Yet wasn’t it a great achievement to keep your head up even when facing insurmountable odds?” Bajwa said.

Tipu was both feared and hated by the British for being a strong adversary. The hatred found vent in propaganda, which, centuries later, has inspired canards about Tipu that pop-up in social media every now and then. Yet today, the British place Tipu along with Napoleon among the greatest adversaries they ever faced in history.

One of the greatest tributes to Tipu came from Sir Walter Scott, who commented on the abdication of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1814 thus: “Although I never supposed that he (Napoleon) possessed, allowing for some difference of education, the liberality of conduct and political views which were sometimes exhibited by old Haidar Ally, yet I did think he (Napoleon) might have shown the same resolved and dogged spirit of resolution which induced Tippoo Saib to die manfully upon the breach of his capital city with his sabre clenched in his hand.”