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Periodic whitewashing of Tipu Sultan can’t undo his unflattering history

by anuj 8 months ago in history
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The first attempt at politically rehabilitating the scrofulous history and copiously documented misdeeds of Tipu Sultan occurred roughly about half a century ago. Quite obviously under the then Congress regime in Karnataka which released a commemorative fifty-paisa postage stamp (July 1974) hailing him as a “freedom fighter”. Not that one can place any reasonable confidence in Congress leaders’ history expertise — back then or now. Those aware of Karnataka’s post-Independence political history will testify to the fact that this Congress-sponsored overhaul of this incredible tyrant had an oblique inspiration from Bhagvan S Gidwani’s unhistorical period novel titled The Sword of Tipu Sultan.

To be sure, the ground for this had already been set years ago by a coterie of seasoned, hardcore Marxist intellectuals, novelists, and writers among others who were substantially rewarded after he became chief minister. Chief among these was the late Girish Karnad’s drama, Dreams of Tipu Sultan (originally in Kannada titled Tipuvina Kanasugalu). The play can be considered as The Sword of Tipu Sultan 2.0 in play form. As chief minister, Siddaramaiah kept his promise such as it was, and unleashed Tipu Jayanti on the state at taxpayer expense. Expectedly, it led to avoidable conflagrations and violence and death each year spread over at least three years. We can let that matter rest at that for now.

Ever since, Siddaramaiah hopefuls and imitators in other states have wasted no time in drawing lessons to retain or fatten their own electoral banks by using Tipu to vote-bait the Muslim community.

In May 2017, the then Tamil Nadu chief minister Edappadi Palaniswami inaugurated a taxpayer-funded memorial for Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan in Dindigul, the once-thriving and historical fort city, which marked a major victory in the early career of Hyder Ali, who was then a mere Faujdar in the employ of the Mysore Wodeyars. This signal victory also launched the canon of his overweening imperial ambition, and the fortunes he amassed here funded his usurpation of the throne of Mysore.

Early last year, the Jaganmohan Reddy government orbited an attempt to install a Tipu statue in Proddatur, Andhra Pradesh and dropped it following a backlash. And now, it is the turn of the super-secular Maharashtra government to propel its own version of the same stunt with a proposal to name a sports stadium in the honour of the tyrant.

Note the aforementioned states in which Tipu’s rehabilitation is occurring. The first is obviously Karnataka, the birth-state of Tipu Sultan who opened his eyes to the world at Devanahalli, the site of today’s Bangalore International Airport. The second is (undivided) Andhra Pradesh, the theatre of serial ravages conducted by Tipu. The third is Tamil Nadu, whose Dindigul connection with Hyder Ali we have already mentioned. The fourth is Maharashtra, the state then ruled by the formidable Peshwas who became a source of recurring nightmares to both Hyder and Tipu. Curiously enough, the Kerala government, the state which witnessed the most colossal and appalling savagery inflicted by Tipu, has not gone the way of these other states.

By itself, these contemporary political attempts at whitewashing Tipu’s sordid legacy of bigotry and senseless genocides of Hindus inspired by zealotry are direct, revelatory links to history.

The phenomenon of industrial-scale distortions of Muslim rule in medieval India deserves an independent study in its own right. This is its summary: Clothing Muslim despots and tyrants as benevolent rulers, and painting the Hindu resistance to all such tyrannies as “rebellion”. For over half a century, if a declared bigot and a self-proclaimed “cleanser” of the “infidel” Hindus like Aurangzeb could be elevated as a compassionate and tolerant monarch, there is much truth in the ironic saying that “it happens only in India”.

Tipu Sultan is in many ways the Aurangzeb of South India. As the author of a book on Tipu Sultan (Tipu Sultan: The Tyrant of Mysore, Rare Publications, Chennai), I am both amused and amazed at the continuing efforts to paint him as a hero, patriot, and more hilariously, a freedom fighter.

But what is truly amazing is the manner in which the blaze of this myth continues to be oxygenated despite the availability of copious amounts of primary sources regarding Tipu Sultan which prove the exact opposite of what these Tipu myth-makers claim. These include and are not limited his correspondence with various officials in his administration and military, and letters he wrote to himself in his private journal or diary. Other primary sources include eyewitness accounts about him written by his contemporaries: French, British, Marathas, Nawabs, and the Nizam of Hyderabad. In fact, we can construct a detailed and accurate picture of the life, times, character and legacy of Tipu Sultan using these primary sources even if we don’t want to rely on any history textbook about him — both that glorify him or otherwise. And that accurate picture is not pretty.

The most charitable description of Tipu Sultan after a survey of these sources is to call him the tyrant of Mysore. His 17-year-long regime was a single panorama of military, economic and religious terror as far as Hindus (and Christians to an extent) were concerned. He razed entire cities literally to the ground and depopulated them.

As representative samples, we can cite his devastating raids in Kodagu (Coorg) and the Malabar for the extent and scale of sheer barbarism and large-scale destruction.

In 1788, Tipu marched into Kodagu and scorched entire towns and villages. Mir Hussein Kirmani, Tipu’s courtier-cum-biographer describes how the raid resulted in the smouldering of scores of villages in Kushalapura (today’s Kushalnagar), Talakaveri, Madikeri, and other places. In a letter to Runmust Khan, the Nawab of Kurnool, Tipu gloats how he took 40,000 Coorgis as prisoners and forcibly converted them to Islam and “incorporated them with our Ahmadi corps.” Already a thinly-populated country, Tipu’s brutal raid followed by this large-scale prisoner-taking depopulated Coorg of its original inhabitants to a severe extent. To Islamise Coorg, he forcibly transported about 7,000 Muslim families belonging to the Shaikh and Sayyid sects to Coorg from elsewhere.

The intensity of Tipu’s raid was so terrifying that hundreds of temple pujaris fled to Mangalore along with their families. Worship came to a permanent halt in hundreds of temples. Some were covered with leaves in order to conceal their presence. The Maletirike Bhagavati temple at Virajpet is a good example of this. Similarly, when the ruler of Madikeri heard news of Tipu’s marauding approach, he realised that the renowned Omkareshwara temple would meet the same fate. Overnight, he removed its tower and replaced it with a dome so that it resembled a mosque from afar. The temple retains this appearance till date. In his raid of Napoklu near Madikeri, Tipu razed the temples in the surrounding villages of Betu and Kolakeri.

Remnants of Tipu Sultan’s savage raid of Kodagu survive even today — the forcibly converted Kodava Hindus are today known as Kodava Mapilas (Mapila: Muslim). Their ancestral family names are still Hindu — some representative examples include surnames like Kuvalera, Italtanda, Mitaltanda, Kuppodanda, Kappanjeera, Kalera, Chekkera, Charmakaranda, Maniyanda, Balasojikaranda, and Mandeyanda. To the Kodavas, Tipu’s fanatical dance of death in their homeland remains a wound that will never heal.

When we turn to the Malabar, the record is gorier. Indeed, Tipu’s barbaric incursions into the Malabar can form the subject of an independent book. Like in Kodagu, residues of Tipu’s deadly campaigns in the Malabar can be seen even today in the region. The city that bore the brunt of his excesses in the Malabar is Kozhikode (Calicut). William Logan’s Malabar Manual, the Malabar Gazetter, the Portuguese missionary Fr Bartholomew’s Voyage to East Indies, the German missionary Guntest and chronicles by various contemporary British military officers contain first-hand accounts of how Tipu razed the city to the ground.

An excerpt from Bartholomew provides us a prototypical glimpse: “First a corps of 30,000 barbarians who butchered everybody on the way… followed by the field-gun unit… Tipu was riding on an elephant behind which another army of 30,000 soldiers followed. Most of the men and women were hanged in Calicut, first mothers were hanged with their children tied to their necks. That barbarian Tipu Sultan tied the naked Christians and Hindus to the legs of elephants and made the elephants move around till the bodies of the helpless victims were torn to pieces. Temples and churches were ordered to be burned down, desecrated and destroyed. Christian and Hindu women were forced to marry Mohammadans and similarly their men were forced to marry Mohammadan women. Those Christians who refused to be honoured with Islam, were ordered to be killed by hanging immediately. These atrocities were told to me by the victims of Tipu Sultan who escaped from the clutches of his army and reached Varappuzha, which is the centre of Carmichael Christian Mission. I myself helped many victims to cross the Varappuzha River by boats.”

The devastation of Kozhikode was so thorough that it changed the character of the place forever. The city was home to more than 7,000 Brahmin families. Thanks to Tipu, more than 2,000 of these were wiped out, and the remaining fled to the forests. In the words of the German missionary Guntest: “[A]ccompanied by an army of 60,000, Tipu Sultan came to Kozhikode [Calicut] in 1788 and razed it to the ground. It is not possible even to describe the brutalities committed by that Islamic barbarian from Mysore.”

In Tipu’s exultory words, these genocides were pious deeds in the service of Islam. Here is his letter to Budruz Zaman Khan, a military official in his service: “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. I consider this as Jehad to achieve that object. Your two letters, with the enclosed memorandums of the Naimar (or Nair) captives, have been received. You did right in ordering a hundred and thirty-five of them to be circumcised, and in putting eleven of the youngest of these into the Usud Ilhye band (or class) and the remaining ninety-four into the Ahmedy Troop… I have achieved a great victory recently in Malabar and over four lakh Hindus were converted to Islam.”

Pakistan has a tradition of naming its missiles in the honour of Islamic invaders and tyrants of India whose devastation of Hindus is counted as an act of piety. Thus, we have missiles named Ghazni, Ghur, and Tipu. However, a 1964 publication of the Pakistan Administrative Staff College, Lahore says the following about Tipu Sultan: “Tipu imprisoned and forcibly converted more than a lakh Hindus and over 70,000 Christians in the Malabar region (they were forcibly circumcised and made to eat beef). Although these conversions were unethical and disgraceful, they served Tipu’s purpose. Once all these people had been cut off from their original faith, they were left with no option but to accept the very faith to which their ravager belonged, and they began to educate their children in Islam. They were later enlisted in the army and received good positions. Most of them morphed into religious zealots, and enhanced the ranks of the faithful in Tipu’s kingdom. Tipu’s zeal for conversion was not limited only to the Malabar region. He had spread it all the way up to Coimbatore.”


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