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Goodbye, Tipu Sultan

Tipu defeated the British armies twice with his superior planning and better techniques, and died on the battlefield fighting them

Monday November 4, 2019 11:58 AM, Subhash Gatade

BJP and Tipu Sultan

Ghatam Bhindyat, Patam Chhindyat, Kuryat Rasbharohanam
Yenken Prakaren, Prasidho Purusho Bhavet

[Break earthen pots, tear clothes, ride a donkey; Men try to achieve popularity by any means.]

It was 2006 and DH Shankarmurthy, a nondescript Swayamsevak, was handling the Higher Education Ministry in the HD Kumarswamy-led coalition government suddenly hit the national headlines. The trigger was his unusual demand to recast history books in the mould of the Sangh Parivar. Especially his proposal to obliterate the great warrior Tipu Sultan’s name from the annals of Kannada history.

The proposal was based on the completely false pretext that Tipu did not give due importance to the Kannada language and promoted Persian language instead. Never mind that the Mysore state archaeological department holds in its possession more than thirty letters sent from Tipu to the shankaracharya of the Shringeri math, all written in Kannada.

Shankaramurthy wanted Tipu Sultan — who sacrificed his children to end the British rule—obliterated from Karnataka history on the spurious logic that the alleged neglect of Kannada language was reason enough. Even then, the demand had caused a national uproar cutting across party lines. At the time, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Janata Dal Secular (JD-S) were sharing power in the state. As a result, their plans fell flat. Much water has flown down the Kaveri, Godavari and every other Indian river and now a BJP-led government, holding power in the state of Karnataka and the centre has drawn up fresh plans to fulfill a task left unfinished.

Just last fortnight, home minister Amit Shah, number two in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cabinet, had said that history should be rewritten, this time from an “Indian perspective”. That, perhaps, made the Karnataka government flail for an immediate target for saffron-washing, and Tipu was pulled from the rubble of history.

First, Tipu Jayanti celebrations were cancelled. Now, there is news that the Karnataka government is considering removing a lesson “glorifying” him from the state’s primary school textbooks.

Interestingly, today’s pretext is not language but Tipu’s alleged cruelty. He was a “cruel ruler whose only aim was to loot temples and churches and kill and convert non-Muslims”, a petition sent by MP Appachu Ranjan, the Member of Legislative Assembly from from the Madikeri constituency, to S Suresh Kumar, minister for primary and secondary education.

The negative portrayal of Tipu Sultan by BJP leaders should not blind us to the fact that for the Hindu Right, the Tiger of Mysore, as Tipu is called, was not not always untouchable. There was a time when Tipu was everybody’s icon. In the 1970s, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the parent body of the BJP, had released a book on on him in its “Bharata Bharati” series of publications.

Thus, the recent efforts of the Hindu right to project him as a Muslim bigot show how their political stakes in him have changed. In the new scenario, the RSS spokesperson denies knowledge about this endorsement.

“Like every other party in Karnataka, the BJP, too, has celebrated Tipu Sultan before 2015,” a news report points out. “In fact, back in 2012, the Department of Kannada and Culture had published a book titled Tipu Sultan: A Crusader for Change. This 338-page monograph written by Sheikh Ali extolls Tipu’s achievements, acquisitions, and praises his fight against the British empire. There is even a message from the then chief minister, the BJP’s Jagadish Shettar.”

During the launch of this monograph, Shettar had said, “…[Tipu Sultan’s] concept of nation state, his idea of state entrepreneurship, his advanced military skill, his zeal for reforms, etc. make him a unique leader far ahead of his age.”

Then, when the Siddaramaiah-led Congress government in Karnataka was organising Tipu Jayanti celebrations, the BJP had objected to it. At the time, JD-S leader Basavaraj Horatti had released photographs of Yeddyurappa and Shettar, dressed up as Tipu on various occasions.

If the BJP’s campaign succeeds, it will find itself on the same side as the colonialists. Tipu, a ruler far ahead of his times, had sensed the designs of the British and tried to forge a broader unity with the domestic rulers to counter them. He even tried to connect with the French, the Turks and the Afghans in response to the hegemonic designs of the British. These proved a major deterrent in their all-India designs.

History is witness that Tipu defeated the British armies twice with his superior planning and better techniques, and died on the battlefield fighting them, sword in his hand.

As for his alleged persecution of Hindus and Christians, the works of early British authors are the basis for such claims. Such writers, modern historians have found, were motivated by a strong vested interest to present Tipu Sultan as a tyrant and the British as liberators. Historian Kate Brittlebank, a well known expert on Tipu Sultan and his times, has said that both Mark Wilks and James Kirkpatrick had taken part in the wars against Tipu Sultan. They were closely connected to the administrations of Lord Cornwallis and Richard Wellesley, [British officials] and therefore “must be used with particular care”. She also notes in her book, Tipu Sultan’s Search for Legitimacy, “It is perhaps ironic that the aggressive Hinduism of some members of the Indian community in the 1990s should draw upon an image of Tipu which…was initially constructed by the Subcontinent’s colonisers.”

The extent to which history is being falsified is mind boggling at times; but it was always done to further the British divide and conquer policy. In a speech given in 1977 in the Rajya Sabha, BN Pandey, a former historian in Allahabad University, who later became Governor of Orissa [now Odisha], said that way back in 1928 he addressed some students’ concerns with respect to Tipu Sultan. The students believed that some 3,000 Brahmins were forced by Tipu to convert to Islam on the threat of death. Those 3,000 committed suicide according to these students, rather than become Muslims. The students attributed this statement to a book written by Harprasad Shastri, a professor in Calcutta.

Pandey asked Shastri the basis of his claims and their source, to which he got the reply that it was in the Mysore Gazetteer. Thereafter, Pandey wrote to Shrikantia, a professor of history in Mysore University, seeking to verify this information. The response he got was that it is a totally false claim. That he had worked in this field and that the Mysore Gazetteer made the reverse claim, namely that Tipu Sultan “used to give annual grants to 156 Hindu temples, he used to send grants to the Shankaracharya of Shringheri, and so on.”

Tipu’s martyrdom fighting the British preceded the historic revolt of 1857 by around 60 years. This is not surprising, considering the trajectory of the Hindu Right. Their history is replete cowardice painted as virtue. Thousands of pages have been written about how they remained aloof from the anti-colonial struggle of the Indian people on the ruse that they wanted to “unify” the Hindus. Enough has been written also on how they sought to break wider anti-colonial unity by pitting the Hindus against the Muslims.

It is also well known that the colonisers distorted the Indian subcontinent’s history to suit their imperial interests. They called the uprisings against them mutinies, painted heroes as villains and freedom fighters as usurpers and terrorists. The move to obliterate Tipu’s name from Kannada history proves that the Hindu Right has finally undertaken the task left unfinished by the colonisers.

[Subhash Gatade is an independent journalist. The above article is first published by CounterCurrents.org.]

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