//Vilification Of Tipu: The Issues Involved

Vilification Of Tipu: The Issues Involved

Nalini Taneja, People's Democracy,October 08, 2006

   TIPU Sultan has figured in the media only two times: once in 1989 when Sanjay Khan’s TV serial The Sword of Tipu Sultan, based on Bhagwan Gidwani’s book of the same title, was being telecast, and in recent days when the education minister of Karnataka, D H Shankaramurthy, a saffronite, decided to protest the inclusion of references to Tipu in school texts because he was an ‘anti-Kannada’ ruler and favoured Persian in administrative use. But on the ground – in public and intellectual discourse –there has been a continuous battle over what Tipu represents in Indian history. Secular historians have stressed the anti-British credentials of Tipu and written on his forward-looking ideas to counter the Muslim-fanatic image of Tipu created by Hindu communal historiography. Simultaneously, the RSS-led Hindu communal political groups have been working very hard for a long time to erase the heroic image of Tipu as an anti-colonial fighter in the minds of the people in the region where he ruled.  

As always these issues get brought into public gaze only under pressure from, or as part of the initiative of, the Hindutva forces. In reality the terrain of historical memory is continuously being affected/constructed by the communal forces and the dominant textbook writing tradition in independent India. Along with Rana Pratap, Shivaji, Aurangzeb, and in recent history, Savarkar and Sardar Patel, Tipu is one historical figure whose treatment at the hands of ‘historians’ and ‘public intellectuals’ and political leaders of the Hindutva brand, has been crucial in the creation of popular commonsense with regard to both history and politics.  

It is not for nothing that the RSS Parivar vilifies the historical memory of Tipu Sultan. Had he simply ruled impartially and given grants to temples, which he did and for which there is ample historical evidence, he could have been passed over by them. Even his sternness with Hindu rulers or Hindu subjects does not make him a fit subject for vilification, because rulers by definition, by virtue of being monarchs rather than democrats (!), are bound to be oppressive in general and cruel to a degree with those who oppose them.  

The battle over what Tipu represents has much to do with the politics of independent India. And in this little battle, as in all other small battles in the realm of ideas, the RSS-led communal forces have borrowed ammunition from British record and ‘scholarship’ whose main purpose was to project the benevolence of British rule at the expense of those they subjugated and who opposed them in colonial India. The British did this in two ways: by presenting their enemies in India as barbaric (until they made their peace with them) and by following their crude, but well thought out policy of divide and rule. The effect of subaltern and postmodern history writing has been so great on the modern academic scene that we tend to ignore some of the old fashioned truths such as impact of rulers and their policies.

The communal reading of Tipu relies heavily on the image of him created willfully by the British—in terms of specific historical ‘evidence’ in the well known Malabar Manual (1887) compiled by William Logan, a British official posted in Malabar, and Mysore Gazetteers that happily sought to legitimise both British rule and the Hindu ruling family of Mysore (the Wodeyars), whom the Company chose to recognise once Tipu was defeated.


Tipu Sultan was the first and most persistent ruler-fighter against the British. He fought four valiant battles against them (the four Anglo-Mysore wars from 1766-1799) to prevent the subjugation of Mysore, and gave them a run for their money, as he was a modernizer and not hesitant to introduce new technology in his war machinery. The dates of his battles are as important as his religion in so far as the Hindu communal forces are concerned. The only unyielding and uncompromising ruler-fighter against the British at that time was Tipu: his battles preceded the great 1857 upheaval against the British, inspired the Vellore revolt of soldiers in 1806, and attained a unity of people of various castes and religions in the same way that the later much more widespread events of 1857 in North India did. His battles are a marker for much that followed. The Hindutva forces simply cannot stomach that this honour should go to a Muslim ruler, and would like to erase his role much as they do of the thousands of Muslim leaders – rulers, maulvis, peasants and soldiers – for 1857. The presence of Tipu in the anti-colonial struggle disturbs their picture of the anti-colonial struggle whole scale — in terms of chronology, in terms of region (not the gangetic plains), in terms of the religious affiliations of rulers and their respective attitude to the British, in terms of the sources of inspiration.

His rule encompassed parts of modern Tamilnadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Goa, presiding over a period of linguistic fluidity, when several popular languages were coming into their own and developing their specific literatures, expressing the unity in diversity that we uphold today, which meant interaction not just between them, but also between ancient languages prevalent in South India as well as Persian from which they imbibed a lot more than the Hindutva forces will ever acknowledge. The rational methods of land revenue assessments, the introduction of new technology in warfare, the recognition of unities other than religion as the basis of polity on the part of Tipu, the conscious and vocal admiration of the French revolution and the radical societies created as part of it, the discussions of new ideas, and his temerity to call himself ‘Citizen Tipu’ and to at the same time recognise the phenomenon of colonialism, of Company-British rulers as qualitatively different from those that preceded or were invaders, marks him out as forward looking and as an icon of everything that the Hindutva forces uphold today, or the communal forces stood for during the freedom struggle.

The eighteenth century flowering of diverse forms of cultural expression under enlightened rulers like Tipu, the fact of their being able to borrow and imbibe from multifarious sources goes against the RSS view of Indian culture and the making of the monolithic Hindu-Indian personality that they promote and campaign for. A factually correct narration and interpretation of events and developments during his rule interferes with and creates hurdles in their efforts to find sustenance and basis in history for their very modern Hindutva political project.

Tipu represents a heritage they would rather not recognize, or would preferably vilify and term as barbaric and as anti-Hindu, and in today’s politics of making use of all localisms and regional chauvinisms as well, as also anti-Kannadiga. Tipu’s modernizing and positive influence was felt across a region much larger than present day Karnataka, both by virtue of the extent of the territories under his rule and the legend that he became in the minds of the people. Even assuming a comparison between what he stood for in his time and what the Hindutva forces stand for today, he was far more progressive and forward looking in the eighteenth century (even given that he was a ruler) than the Hindutva leaders are today, and the two represent alternative visions of modernity.

There is no ambiguity about whether Tipu needs to be upheld in school textbooks or not: it is our failure that we refuse to monitor history texts unless the BJP makes a noise about them. Tipu has been, and continues to be, vilified in the texts adopted in thousands of Vidya Bharati inspired schools, and in the history study circles of the RSS Parivar organisations and pu
blications, not to speak of the tourism brochures and discourses of the ‘qualified’ guides who cater to millions of tourists in the area year after year. We need to more alert: just as Savarkar’s photograph continues to adorn the parliament and the plaque in Andaman jail, we could as well end up with promotions of the feudal and decadent house of Wodeyar at the expense of the heroic Tipu Sultan.