The Importance Of Being Tipu
Tipu Jayanti is being celebrated by the Government of Karnataka, a virtual uproar has been created by this decision. The critics of the decision have pointed out that Tipu was not a freedom fighter. He was only defending his own kingdom against the British menace. The Hindutva forces, not surprisingly have argued that Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramiah was using the celebration to appease Muslims as against Hindus. For them, Tipu was the quintessential religious bigot who oppressed anyone non-Muslim, Hindu or Christian. This narrative was popularised by Colonel Wilks during the beginning of the 19th century and was carried forward by Meadows Taylor during the middle of the 19th century. The narrative was apparently built around the experiences of the British soldiers held captive in Tipu’s prisons, and who were rendered chelas by fellow prisoners with a criminal background, who became gurus and revelled in torturing the British.
The guru chela story spread in a way reminiscent of the equally infamous ‘Black hole of Calcutta’ targeted against another Indian prince who dared to oppose the British, Siraj ud-Daula in Bengal. The infamy of the white Englishmen rendered into slaves by the Orientals was sufficient provocation for the British to retaliate against the ruler who dared to imprison them. The story of the religious bigot that the British created was to stick with Tipu, despite the solid evidence of numerous temples in Sringeri , including one proximate to his palace that were left unharmed, the endowments that Tipu made to Sringeri matha and other maths in his region, and the fact that not every temple in Tamil country was harmed by either Hyder Ali or Tipu in their numerous raids.
Regarding his credentials as a freedom fighter, how many of those princes fighting against the British in the 18th century were fighting for anything called the ‘Indian nation’? Siraj ud-Daula was fighting for Bengal. So were the Marathas fighting for their territory, which was the Maratha ‘swarajya’ . So were the Rohillas, the Palaiyakkarar of Tamil Nadu, Pazhassi Raja of Kerala and numerous others.
Even the Sanyasi rebels of Bengal, eulogised by Bankim Chandra, to whom he attributed the song ‘Vande Mataram’ only had an idyllic picture of a motherland which was probably Bengal and nothing more. They were all fighting against the foreigners who came to seize their territory, by hook or by crook. At least , it is to the credit of Tipu that he had a better understanding of the nature of the foreigner he had to contend with and ventured to seek alliances with the enemies of the British, in a typical oriental strategy, the enemy of my enemy is my friend. So he sought an alliance with the Ottomans, in which he failed and even sought an alliance with the French. He openly expressed his sympathies with the French Revolution and sent emissaries to the French Government.
He tried to strengthen his military arsenal with help of the French, tried to attract mercantile and industrial entrepreneurs in order to bolster an economy heavily fleeced by the type of blockade enforced by the British, with the assistance of the Nizam of Hyderabad and the Marathas. At least for a while, Tipu was offering serious resistance, politically, economically and sentimentally, as Tipu was becoming a rallying point for all those who still dared to oppose the British. It is not surprising that Tipu’s final end was celebrated in the streets of London, a negative honour that the British man can give to an oriental rebel.
Let the Hindutva forces, with their feet and brains firmly rooted in the mythical past of the Vedas, Itihasas and Puranas, ignore Tipu and blindly repeat the perverse colonial chant of the religious bigotry of Tipu. Is it not true that the people of Mysore know better? For them, who were under numerous marauding princes, Hindu and Muslim, Tipu was just another prince, the man who rose from among the commoners, with no Hindu kshatriya blood to rule them for some time. If he was an oppressor, so were the others. When other kshatriyas including Marathas made peace with their enemies, Tipu fought and died on the battlefield. If he was not a freedom fighter, he was fighter whom the British could never ignore, and it is not surprising that the Government of Karnataka chose to remember him.
The question of freedom fighters always brings up the question of what is it that they fought for, for the Indian nation has always had a polyphonic character. It was a bunch of Mahajanapadas, it was the Vijita of Asoka, it was divided into a number of rajyas in later centuries, and some kings called themselves rajadhiraja or the king of kings. Later, an entity called Hindustan evolved through the unifying conquests of the Delhi sultans and the Mughals.
If Tipu replaced the raja of Mysore and declared himself the sultan, it was also because the sultanate had been accepted by Indians as a legitimate form of state power during the medieval period, and he was asserting that legitimate use against British claims. He tried to strengthen Mysore in his efforts to defend his claim and refused to surrender to a subsidiary system to which most of the kings in India surrendered, voluntarily or under duress.
What should we call such a man? We can call him a medieval rebel prince, for want of a better term. Historians, nationalists and Hindutva forces can debate on the matter, but it appears legitimate for the people of Karnataka to remember him, for such rebels are part of their legacy and made them what they are today. What the Hindutva forces and their apologists want from the people of Karnataka is to forget their own past, efface it from memory as a kind of dark age, a strategy through which they want to dismantle the real Indian nation in favour of an illusory, mythical one.
(Dr KN Ganesh is a Professor of History at the University of Calicut)