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Deccan Herald » Panorama » Detailed Story
He stuck to his dream of a united Mysore
By Vikram Sampath
Tipu Sultan had his failings and weaknesses but he cannot be denied the greatness that he so richly deserves.
An unwarranted controversy brews over the life and times of a man who laid down his life fighting for his freedom some 207 years ago. Tipu Sultan has kicked up dust in a country starved of sensationalism. The genesis of this sordid tale was an irrelevant reference to the 18th century ruler by the Karnataka Higher Education Minister. That the comment was purposeless, illogical and out-of-context should have sufficed for the paparazzi to abandon it. But presto! – we have an entire ‘‘secularists’ brigade” – from writers to supposed thinkers to defunct politicians and television stars, jumping the gun and converting it into a communal issue. The minister never made a reference to religion in his diatribe. But could our friends miss an opportunity when they could publicly proclaim their love for minorities? After all, in India a person becomes secular by branding another communal! Do we, in the 21st century, need to sit in judgement of a monarch who ruled the land 200 years ago? And worse, by present-day yardsticks of morality and political correctness?

The basic premise of Tipu being ‘‘anti-Kannada’’ seems misplaced. Judging a king who ruled two centuries ago by the present standards of virulent “Kannada nationalism” is preposterous! In 1916, R Narasimhachar, Director of Archaeology in Mysore, unearthed over 30 letters written by the Sultan in chaste Kannada to the Sringeri Shankaracharya. The Mir Asaf Kacheri (Revenue and Finance Department) maintained records in Persian, Kannada and Marathi. Persian was certainly introduced with Kannada for official and military use. Just as Marathi and Kannada enjoyed equal status in the Wodeyar Court, the introduction of Persian made the administration multi-lingual.

What is interesting is that Tipu obliterated every trace of the Wodeyars, whose kingdom was usurped by his father Haidar Ali in 1761. The name of every object (years, months, weights, coins, forts, and official designations) was changed. The administration was called “Sarkar-e-Khudadad” or God-given government. Mangalore became Jalalabad, Mysore became Nazarabad and Srirangapatna was Ganjam. The motive, it would appear was to leave his mark on the affairs of a usurped state and send a message to the members of the displaced Royal Family under Rani Lakshmi Ammanni who were conspiring with the British to oust him.

Love or hatred for Kannada seems to be the last thing on Tipu’s mind, and it was a completely political move by a man who was after all a king, not a saint or Kannada litterateur! Regarding Tipu’s secular credentials, he was undoubtedly liberal in many of his gestures within Mysore – his letters to Shankaracharya, the donations to Sringeri, Nanjangud and Srirangapatna temples permitting the Dasara festivities etc. But the same Tipu adopted a violent and intolerant attitude outside Mysore. Malabar, that bore the brunt of his vitriolic attacks, has records that throw light on this fact. Mysorean armies along with Mappillas or local Muslim tribes, ravaged the lives of thousands of rebelling Hindu Nairs, coupled with forceful conversions and destruction of temples. Thrichambaram and Thalipparampu (Chirackal), Thiruvangatu (Tellicherry) and Ponmeri (Badakara), Keraladheeswaram, Thrikkandiyoor and Thriprangatu (Vettum) temples were destroyed.

Tipu writes to Syed Abdul Dulai on January 18, 1790: “With the grace of Prophet Mohammed and Allah, 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.” It could be argued that more than religion, it was the victor’s power that had to be established.

What better way to do it than enforcing one’s religious identity on the vanquished? But even by today's “secular” standards, isn't this the wrong approach to quell insurgency, in say Kashmir or the North East?

A historian’s role should be one of equanimity and conscious adherence to facts. Undoubtedly, Tipu was a great ruler and visionary ahead of his time. His understanding of British imperialism, vision of a united anti-British Indian confederacy and bravery are folklore. Strangely, he allied with the French, who were no less imperialistic! But that was Tipu – a bundle of contradictions.

At the end of the day he was a human being and a man with shades of grey. He had his failings, weaknesses and committed some terrible excesses that contemporary monarchs were guilty of. Modern historians need not brush these facts under the carpet. But at the same time, Tipu cannot be denied the greatness that he so richly deserves.

As Denys Forrest states, "Looking back over his story, I think it can be seen that he had a rare quality of single-mindedness. As in the style of his letters, so in the shape of his life, Tipu Sultan was always recognisably himself. That is why the English feared him, even beyond reason. And he was a brave man. He may have fallen short in wisdom and foresight, but never in courage, never in aspiration, never in his dream of a united, an independent, a prosperous Mysore.”

(The writer is with Citibank, and has put together a work on the 'History of Mysore'.)
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