Literary Review

A tiger by the tail

This short book by Kate Brittlebank, an author and researcher whose area of specialisation is late 18th and early 19th century south India, is a useful addition to the literature on the Tiger of Mysore. But the question is, more than two centuries after he was killed in battle by the British at Seringapatam, why is there such continuing interest and controversy over Tipu Sultan?

This quote from historian E.J. Hobswam probably holds the answer:

“Historians are to nationalism what poppy-growers in Pakistan are to the heroin-addicts: we supply the essential raw material for the market… What makes a nation is the past, what justifies one nation against others is the past, and historians are the people who produce it.”

Tipu, therefore, can never rest — and neither can Aurangzeb or Akbar or any of the historical figures who have become valuable raw material with which nationalists of various kinds are trying to create their own myths.

To the nationalists of India’s Independence struggle, Tipu was a fierce opponent of British colonialism; a nationalist who had a Hindu as his chief minister and was a patron of both mosques and temples; a moderniser who mastered the art of rocketry to such an extent that he bettered his European opponents; and a far-sighted administrator who, for example, introduced sericulture, which employs over a million people in Karnataka today. At a time when many Indian kings were eager to seek British alliance and accept “British Residents”, Tipu went to the extent of banning Europeans from entering his territory uninvited — evidence, if it were needed, of his status as a symbol of fierce Indian resistance to colonialism.

To Hindutva nationalists, on the other hand, Tipu and his father Hyder Ali were usurpers of the Hindu Kingdom of Wodeyars and Tipu in particular was a tyrant who invaded Malabar, Kodagu and Cochin and committed untold atrocities against the rebel Nairs, Kodavus and Christians of Canara. Thousands were forcibly converted and transferred from their home territories to Mysore. According to them, he also conspired with the French, the Ottomans and the Afghans to re-establish Muslim rule in India once again, after the disintegration of the Mughal empire.

So where does the ‘truth’ lie — and does Kate Brittlebank help us uncover it?

Brittlebank’s book is an enquiry into “how Tipu perceived himself and why he acted in certain ways at certain times.” Instead of seeing Tipu from today’s perspective, she tries to “immerse the reader in his world, that of eighteenth-century south India.” This can be immediately disorienting for those who read the book primarily to find clear answers to 21st century questions, but also ultimately liberating.

That is because 18th century south India doesn’t fit into today’s nationalist framework. In the world in which Tipu lived, rulers fought and allied with other rulers without caring much about their nationality or religious affiliations. Nawabs fought against nawabs with the support of Hindu kings; the Marathas, the Nizam and the British came together against Tipu; and the French allied with Tipu to battle the British… In the kaleidoscope of wars and alliances of 18th century South India, the only consistent principle one can find is survival and self-interest. The vacuum left by the decline of the Mughal Empire, it seems, was filled by an onrush of raw ambition and adventurism. There is little doubt that Tipu’s depredations in Malabar, Cochin and Kodagu were terrible, although Brittlebank describes them as “shock and awe” methods common to rulers of the time in putting down opponents.

It is instructive to look at some of Tipu’s letters. This is what he instructs his ambassadors to tell the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid as he seeks an alliance with him: “You should say that the country of Bengal, which has revenues of twenty crore of rupees, the country of Carnatic with revenues of three crore of rupees, and the country of Surat, Gujarat, etc., with three crore of rupees, in total rupees twenty-six crore, which belonged to the emperor of Hindustan, has been seized by the English, by use of collusion with and [inciting] treachery of the governors of these territories.” Notice the emphasis on the revenue figures. Very similar is his instruction to his ambassadors to France. In letter after letter, two things become clear: one, Tipu’s singular focus on the ‘business’ of ruling, with attention to cost and revenue; and an inclination to position himself as either fighting the predatory Christians, or the infidel Hindus or the treacherous British, all depending on what he thought his audience of the moment — the French, the Ottomans or the Afghans — liked to hear.

In this, Tipu was no different from other rulers of the time, like the Marathas, the Nizams, the Nawabs, or the Hindu kingdoms. And that is no surprise because the conception of an Indian nation was yet to form, despite common cultural beliefs and practices that cut across the subcontinent, sometimes weakly and sometimes strongly. Just as Europe, despite its common cultural beliefs and practices, was split into constantly warring nations, so was India then. One had to wait till the British had conquered much of the subcontinent and created a common administrative infrastructure, language and an educated pan-Indian civil service, for the idea of modern Indian nationhood to start emerging, in direct and vehement opposition to colonial occupation. The two different strands of nationalism that began emerging in that crucible are still with us — an all-inclusive nationalism of the Independene struggle and the exclusively Hindu nationalism as defined by the pioneers of Hindutva.

The all-inclusive nationalism created a nationalist hero out of Tipu Sultan because he served to highlight the point that all Indians had a common enemy in colonialism, and that a modern Indian nation could hold all communities together. The Hindutva nationalists on the other hand, had other things in mind: they wished to create an exclusive nation out of the Hindus, in contrast with and in perennial opposition to other religions. In this, Tipu was of help as the inimical other, the Muslim leader out to crush Hindu nationhood.

Brittlebank’s book shows why both portrayals are inaccurate. Tipu’s concerns were not particularly nationalistic, and so it is inaccurate to consider him as a nationalist hero. Neither was Tipu an inveterate enemy of the Hindus as the Hindutva nationalists like to portray him — he is considered a tyrant not by his own Hindu subjects of Mysore, but by those he fought against and subjugated. Much like his father, he was an opportunist, an adventurer, and a tyrant to his foes, with perhaps the most dramatic sense of pageantry and the most consistent track record of investing in modern technology.

Two instances bring this out most clearly. One is what his emissaries got back from Paris after meeting Louis XVI for a potential alliance: gunsmiths, watchmakers, workers of porcelain from Sèvres, glass-workers, textile weavers, printers who could work with Eastern languages, an engineer and a physician, not to speak of clove and camphor trees, European fruit trees, and seeds of various flowers. Writes Brittlebank: “Tipu’s goal was to match the Europeans in their technology and industry, which would set Mysore apart and stimulate the prosperity of the realm; just as he wished to compete with the British militarily, he wanted to match their economic enterprise.”

The second instance is mentioned not in Brittlebank’s book, but in Wings of Fire, authored by former President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, where he wrote about how he came upon Tipu at the NASA office in Virginia: “This place was the base for NASA’s sounding rocket programme. Here, I saw a painting prominently displayed in the reception lobby… One day, my curiosity got the better of me, drawing me towards the painting. It turned out to be Tipu Sultan’s army fighting the British. The painting depicted a fact forgotten in Tipu’s own country but commemorated here on the other side of the planet. I was happy to see an Indian glorified by NASA as a hero of warfare rocketry.”

It was Hyder Ali who introduced war rockets with metal cylinders to contain combustion powder, but Tipu improved on it, and his rockets were used with devastating effect against the British. As Brittlebank writes: “For thirty years, first Hyder Ali, Tipu’s father, then Tipu himself, had been at the forefront of the British public’s consciousness. Terrifying tales of attacks on British forces and threats to trading settlements such as Madras appeared in the newspapers of the day, embellished by distance as they were carried home by sea.”

Whatever Tipu was, or wasn’t, there is no doubt that he made an impact that was rare in its intensity. That is why this book is worth reading — to get a different perspective so that we can try and grasp history beyond the needs of nationalistic myth-making of all kinds.

Tony Joseph is a journalist based in the national capital region and a former editor of Business World magazine.

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Printable version | Sep 17, 2021 7:32:44 PM |

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