Four years ago, in late 2012, after walking out of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to form his own party, the Karnataka Janatha Paksha, B.S. Yeddyurappa had donned Tipu Sultan’s headgear and held a mock sword while praising the ruler’s virtues at a function for seeking the support of Muslim voters. Back in the BJP two years later, and now its State president, Mr. Yeddyurappa is at the forefront of the BJP’s opposition to the celebration of Tipu Jayanthi in Karnataka on November 10. As symbolic currency, historical icons can come in handy in opportunistic ways.
Demonising a cultural icon Through the mysterious process of mythification seen in India, which frees individuals from their community identity in cultural memory, Tipu Sultan, the ruler of Mysore (1750-1799), appeared as everyone’s icon. He was the Tiger of Mysore.
Several Kannada folk songs ( lavanis ) lamenting his death were in circulation in the 19th century, the earliest dating back to 1800, the year after he died in the battlefield. This is a very special fact since folk songs do not exist for any of the kings of Karnataka. They exist for only tragic heroes like Tipu and other local chieftains who died at the hands of the British.
Thousands of plays on Tipu have been staged across the State during the late 19th century and 20th centuries. History textbooks and popular literature, like the Amar Chitra Katha comics, were unequivocal in viewing him as a brave martyr who went down fighting the British. Even the concise Kannada biography on Tipu that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh published in the late 1970s, in its “Bharata Bharati” series, only praises him as a patriot and heroic personality, without offering any negative comment on him.
The recent efforts of the Hindu right wing to project Tipu as a Muslim bigot show that their political stakes in him have changed. Among their chief complaints: he killed thousands of Kodavas in Coorg and forcibly converted Catholic Christians of Mangalore into Muslims.
While Tipu did commit violence in Coorg and Mangalore, recovering its scale or his intentions is by no means a simple task. Academic Michael Soracoe, for instance, has recently drawn attention to the extensive phobic material on Tipu created by the English officials, writers, painters, and cartoonists in the last two decades of the 18th century, i.e. when Tipu challenged the English in military combat, which cast him as a Muslim fanatic who broke Hindu temples and converted local Hindus and Christians into Muslims. It now seemed only proper for the British to take over Mysore and save his subjects.
This new sense of imperial purpose, argues Mr. Soracoe, even helped overcome the image of the East India Company as corrupt and unfit for embarking on political rule in India. The images of Tipu as cruel and bigoted, which flourished in English writings all through the 19th century, now surface in right-wing complaints about him (“He destroyed 8,000 temples in Mysore!”).
Historian Kate Brittlebank, who has worked extensively on Tipu, attributes his violence towards the Kodavas and the Mangalore Christians to his expansionist military strategy. Since he wanted to annex Coorg and Mangalore, which were bordering Mysore kingdom, and since he was at war with the British more or less continuously between 1780 and 1799, the frequent support for the British seen in Coorg and Mangalore made him put down those pro-British forces violently.
Understanding pre-modern contexts The brute killings that underlie the work of running and expanding kingdoms usually do not stand out in routine historical accounts where rulers come and go as anaemic matters of fact. The violence and the deaths behind it all stand muted and anonymised. Raja Raja Chola and Krishnadevaraya, among many others, appear as great warrior kings without their victims anywhere in sight. The royal violence can lose anonymity in India’s charged communal politics, though, when the perpetrator of violence is a Muslim king, like Tipu Sultan, and create new kinship with the past victims.
At any rate, what has become clear, yet again, is the ease with which modern discussions are able to simplify the pre-modern social worlds.
During Tipu’s rule, the administrative transactions within Mysore were done in Persian, Kannada and Marathi. All of his key ministers were upper-caste Brahmins. Of course, his generous endowments to major Hindu temples and monastic orders in the State are well recorded. The 10-day grand Dasara celebrations continued with a member of the Wodeyar royal family presiding over the festivities. Besides, forcible religious conversions have not been documented anywhere in Mysore. The complex style of Tipu’s rule in Mysore should make it hard for anyone to simply view him as a religious fanatic.
Focusing solely, as right-wing discussions do, on Tipu’s religious views, threatens to eclipse his versatile personality. His letters to the Nizam and the Marathas show that he viewed the British as a new kind of political enemy whose rule would hurt the region’s future in drastic ways, qualifying him perhaps as an early freedom fighter. His keenness in the upgradation of his military equipment has impressed engineers, scientists and others who value advances in technology. And those who admire the institution of the modern state have appreciated that Tipu fine-tuned his revenue collection networks and tried to create a centralised bureaucracy. The over 2,000 books in Tipu’s personal library, which were sent to Oxford and Cambridge Universities in England and to the College of Fort William and Royal Asiatic Society in Calcutta after his death, show the rich range of his intellectual interests: astronomy, law, mathematics, among others.
Ought Karnataka to celebrate Tipu Jayanthi? No, the way it ought to never have celebrated Basava Jayanthi, Kanaka Jayanthi and Valmiki Jayanthi. Not only might these figures not be above criticism, their symbolic affinity with specific castes in the State make their celebration a public affirmation of the bargaining clout of those castes. As a gesture of the state, singling out only a few figures as worthy for the Jayanthi commemoration is also to openly slight the other castes/religions/tribes whose community icons have not been conferred with a state commemoration. And to set off competitive rivalry among those communities to mark their presence in the State’s calendar.
Chandan Gowda teaches at Azim Premji University.