Why Turn Tipu into a Pawn?

November 19, 2015

Long before Bush and Rumsfeld, dreaming of regime change and oil, launched a blitzkrieg of misinformation about Iraq, two gentlemen - Richard Wellesley and Robert Dundas- went on a propaganda campaign of their own with their sole aim being the downfall of the ruler of Mysore- Tipu Sultan. Now why did Richard Wellesley, Governor General of India, then ruled by the East India Company, take such pains to tame a Deccan ruler, the extent of whose empire was negligible compared to that of the other historical Indian dynasties and empires? And why should India burn with such passion about him more than two hundred years later? The answer to this question lies in the dichotomy of Tipu Sultan’s life and legacy.

Was Tipu Sultan a secular icon or was he a Muslim despot? Tipu Sultan was just another military ruler- imperialist in his ambitions, merciless in victory and benevolent in peacetime. He wasn’t anything Ashoka in his pre-Kalinga days wasn’t. Ideally, one should have left him at that. A few volumes in history. Facts and figures and their numerous interpretations based on economic, political and social standpoint. Unfortunately we have once again fallen prey to interpretation of hearsay, perception and cunning political maneuverings.

And this perception and hearsay stems from the campaign launched by the two Company gentlemen mentioned above. Much of what was written and documented about Tipu in the days leading to his fall and later was suffused with Company propaganda. The right and reactionary of this country seem to have picked up those yellowing pages and reprinted them. To say that Tipu Sultan destroyed temples would not be incorrect. But saying only that will be a half-truth, which is more dangerous than untruth. For half truths have that iota of fact which dangerously laces deliberate propaganda with legitimacy.  When the long stated defenders of Hinduism, the Marathas, ransacked and looted the Hindu matt of Sringeri in 1791, it is important to note that it was Tipu Sultan who was tasked to protect the temple and Matt, which he did. It is also well documented how he gave generous land grants to temples and Hindu clergymen. And all his life, Tipu remained a devout Muslim. His personal dharma did not clash with his rajdharma. When Tipu’s army went to battle, temples in his domain offered prayers for his victory against Hindu, Muslim and British antagonists alike. Ultimately a war for Tipu was also a war for his people, who were overwhelmingly Hindu. Had Tipu lost any of those battles, would the antagonist- Hindu or Muslim, have spared the temples and riches in his domain? Did Ashoka spare Kalinga?  A strong ruler was viewed as one who would show no mercy on his enemies. It’s important to remember that royal benevolence on subjects was often directly proportional to the misery of subjugated kingdoms.

The one fact that seems to have been lost in this debate about Tipu’s secularism or lack of it is his economic and political contributions. As William Dalrymple wrote, Tipu frightened the British by his zeal for economic reform and technological prowess. Tipu’s army had superior artillery than the British, his army’s flintlock rifles were better than the British matchlocks and he was importing French technology to build rockets and large guns. He was in effect creating a strong, modern and self sufficient army. His weapons were indigenously manufactured with French technology transfer and he had become and economic powerhouse by establishing trading posts abroad with the help a strong navy. His import of silkworm eggs for sericulture from Southern China to Mysore is benefitting the region even today. Had Tipu been a modern politician, he could have probably won an election or two on a developmental plank- something Prime Minister Modi never tires of paying lip service to. No wonder the British, fresh from their American debacle, saw similarities and sent the very man to vanquish Tipu who would later go on to defeat Napoleon in Waterloo- Arthur Wellesley.

It is important to note the politics behind trying to paint Tipu Sultan in certain colors. The RSS lack of historical appeal, it’s dubious, approving role vis a vis the British Raj and it’s lack of leading progressive mass movements have left it with no option but to follow in the footsteps of their de-facto Western ideologues. The British had to divide and rule India to get a hold of this proud and massive subcontinent. When they left the RSS took over that legacy of divide and rule. And in the absence of true patriots or martyrs during the freedom struggle, they were left with only one option. Appropriating historical figures and misappropriating history. Under the factual narrative, the RSS stood no chance in the larger political design. Hence they needed their own. Hence while they try to misappropriate Gandhi’s legacy, they continue to eulogize his murderers. While they continue to swear by Manusmriti they try to misappropriate Babasaheb Ambedkar’s legacy. Their narrative of a fanatical Muslim despot about Tipu is a rapid continuation of the same false narrative.

The danger of that narrative is that factual history gets sidelined and extreme reactions based on perceived history try to paint historical figures in black or white. So Tipu becomes both a secular icon and a bloodthirsty fundamentalist. As the record briefly narrated above shows he was neither. What he has become though, is a pawn in the game of current politics which only helps to divert attention from the real issues of the people.