Sword of Tipu Sultan
A braveheart who fought the imperialists with valour
Tipu Sultan was a Muslim ruler who had provided annual grants to no fewer than 156 temples; helped restore the tradition of worship in Sringeri Mutt after the Marathas had invaded it; offered copious financial assistance to the Kanchi temple during its construction; retained the temple town of Srirangapatna as his capital throughout his reign, whose army was mostly composed of 'Shudras'; and supported building the first ever church in Mysore. Yet he has been projected as a religious bigot throughout history.
Tipu Sultan lived and died in an entirely different era when the lexicon held dissimilar insinuations than those of the present, when territorial expansions were the order of the day and engaging rebellions against authority were swiftly and decisively accepted norms of statesmanship. Admittedly, those at the receiving end of Tipu's indignation faced executions, mass migration and forced conversions that were intended to be harbingers for others who might be plotting insurgency. Such deportments, however brutal it would appear now, prevailed in the subcontinent from the medieval times. How would it be to judge a Gothic ruler's actions that fell within the propriety of kingship that prevailed over centuries against modern statutes of governance?
Apparently there is a concoction in the interpretation of history here because the facts in history books do not add up. The death of Aurangzeb in 1707 marked the decline of the Mughal empire. The new geo-politic that emerged soon resulted in the birth of disjointed states like Awadh, Bengal and Hyderabad, yet allowing an underlying power vacuum benefiting foreign traders who had by now started becoming obvious factors in the power equation of the region. Manipulative as it was, East India Company leveraged this situation to their advantage gaining strong footholds wherever there was a hiatus. In the South, the company could not find their way as easily as they did in the North, because they had met their match with Hyder Ali Khan, who was nearly as motivated and ambitious as themselves. Khan is said to have sought the help of French military experts in organising his army and formed a corps of European mercenaries as gunmen in his artillery. The British tried to curb his regional expansions by joining hands with the Marathas and the Nizam of Hyderabad, but Khan played his cards close to his chest winning over both the British allies to his camp.
Tipu was born in 1750. Though Khan and his wife Fatima Fakhr Unnisa named him Fath Ali, they began addressing him as "Tipu", after the local saint Tipu Mastan Aulia. After his father's death, Tipu inherited the throne. The period of transition from one ruler to another has always been vulnerable when the new ruler's potency would be tested either by those with grievances or who wanted to disassociate themselves from his authority.
History is vindictive to Tipu. As a matter of fact, he was a radical in more ways than one. He banned the consumption of alcohol in his state, not on religious grounds, but on ethical grounds and primarily in consideration of the well-being of his subjects. He introduced sericulture. He confiscated the property of the upper castes and distributed it among the untouchables. He also sowed the first seeds of capitalism at a time when feudalism was the norm in the social calendar of the whole country. In 1796, he wrote to the Hyderabad Chief Minister, with flagrant undertones of what is in the cards, should the British be allowed to pave inroads unchecked into the subcontinent. Tipu cannot be reduced into a singular narrative, because he represented a manifold of traditions and conventions.
Yet, why is he regarded as a tyrant by some and as a hero by others? Why is it that while Emperor Asoka, who is also known to have committed the same kind of brutality during his invasion of 'Kalinga', as Tipu is accused of, is celebrated as "the great" (the emperor's insignia is the centrepiece adorning the National flag) and Tipu a persecutor? Is it because, among other things, some of his administrative reforms, like renaming of townships with Hindu names to those in Farsi, and recalibrating existing weights and measures to suit historical Islamic concepts, bore religious preferences? In fact, the culprits here are, partly Tipu's colonial enemies and partly the mind-set of a predominant section of the population. While all the other native rulers accepted the Company's call for placing a political agent in their courts without much hesitation, both the father and the son refused to give in to such clandestine manoeuvres by the latter. This was perhaps the final strand they were looking for to eliminate Tipu, who had by now become a thorn in their trading path, they could no longer afford to ignore. In 1798 with the arrival of a new spiteful governor general in Calcutta, in the form of the Earl of Mornington, the heat was turned on Tipu.
With the Marathas and the Nizam already against him, and others bound to slavish routines, Tipu comes across as a braveheart who lead the fourth Mysore war from the front and gallantly embraced death in the battlefield. However, some quarters in Britain, who had considered Tipu as a maverick and perhaps even a bohemian, doubted the legitimacy of Mornington's actions. In response, the governor general and his cohorts justified their attack on Mysore by portraying both the father and the son as belligerents and oppressors of their subjects. That's how the fable of Tipu, as we know it, was created. Over the next two centuries, as the slogans of patriotism and self-rule dug deep into nationalist sentiments, Tipu became the first Muslim martyr. Apparently, the character of the fable was defined by the need of the hour to suit the interests of those who created it. The irony is that only a few were gullible then, but more are now, without ever realising it.