The year was 1782, and the Tiger of Mysore had just ascended to the throne. Tipu Sultan's 17-year reign would soon prove to be a turbulent one, fraught with wars, fending off the British and struggles with the surrounding powers.
Tipu Sultan, the 18th century Mysore king is well known for having stood up to the British. He deployed rockets against the British forces and their allies during the Anglo-Mysore Wards and even allied with Napoleon Bonaparte, with the intention of assisting the French in their struggle with the British.
In an essay for the Guardian, author, and historian William Dalrymple writes that Tipu had tried to warn others of the "dangers of an increasingly arrogant and aggressive west".
"Know you not the custom of the English?" he wrote in vain to the Nizam of Hyderabad in 1796. "Wherever they fix their talons they contrive little by little to work themselves into the whole management of affairs." quotes Dalrymple in the essay.
Tipu also introduced a whole host of innovations and reforms during his rule. He is credited with introducing a new coinage system and calendar and a new land revenue system that aided the growth of the Mysore silk industry. His economic program also turned the Kingdom of Mysore into one of the leading economic powers towards the end of the 18th century.
Not everyone sees Tipu as a paragon of virtues, however. Even as he's hailed as a secular ruler and a freedom fighter, he is reviled by many and thought of as a Hindu-killing king who forced people to convert to Islam.
This idea, some say, may have first been propagated by the British themselves, in a bid to undermine his power.
According to Dalrymple, "There was no doubt who would be the first to be targeted: a Muslim dictator whose family had usurped power in a military coup. According to British sources, this chief of state was an "intolerant bigot", a "furious fanatic" with a "rooted and inveterate hatred of Europeans", who had "perpetually on his tongue the projects of jihad". He was also deemed to be "oppressive and unjust ... [a] sanguinary tyrant, [and a] perfidious negotiator".”
According to him, Richard Wellesley was sent to India by the East India Company with instructions to end Tipu’s reign. The end goal was to replace him with a compliant west-backed puppet who would help them serve their needs. In order to make this possible, the first step was to vilify Tipu and paint him as an aggressive, intolerant Muslim king. At the same time, he was to be painted as an oppressor, who was determined to drive the British out.
Tipu did not limit himself to traditional methods of warfare. He was ready to innovate and use western weapons against its creators -- something that worried his enemies.
No person is purely good or evil and Tipu Sultan isn't an exception. Dalrymple claims that Tipu continued the Indo-Islamic tradition of syncretism, even as he destroyed Hindu temples conquered in war, while supporting temples which fell under his kingdom.
In 2015, the Siddaramaiah-led Congress government had started the annual celebration of Tipu Jayanti in Karnataka. This did not go down well with locals. During the celebrations, a local Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) leader died while several others, including policemen, were injured in violent clashes. Another youth was injured in firing by unknown persons.
The celebration culminated in prohibitory orders being put over the entirety of Kodagu district and additional reinforcements being sent to the area to keep the situation under control.
In an earlier Firstpost article, MA Deviah opines that celebrating Tipu Jayanti is an insult to various people of the region. As he puts it, people in places such as Coorg, Mangalore and Kerala "regard Tipu Sultan as a tyrant who destroyed temples, killed non-Muslims, and forcibly converted tens of thousands of conquered people. Various parties and organisations have already taken out protest processions and 10 November, is being observed across Coorg district as a black day.”
Interestingly enough, November 10 which was designated as Tupu Sultan Jayanti is not really his birth anniversary. As former Bangalore University Vice Chancellor Thimappa Manchale Suryanarayanarao wrote on social media a while ago now, Tipu's birth anniversary is November 20. "November 10 is the day on which he hanged 700 Iyengars in Melkote," he writes.
Deviah's article claims that the oppression did not end there. According to the article, people in Coorg were circumcised and forced to eat beef. It is said that Tipu destroyed temples in the area.
Deviah quotes a Portuguese missionary's account to say that Tipu "tied 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."
Tipu's greatness may be a topic of historical debate, but he did not have any sort of monopoly on atrocities. Even rulers like Akbar and Ashoka can be accused of similar actions. He was a product of his times, and there may never be universal agrement on whether he was a hero or a villain.
At the heart of the Tipu Sultan debate today, however, is a political tussle. The Congress, in a bid to antagonise the right-wing parties, came up with Tipu Jayanti. Now, with the fall of the Congress-JD(S) government, one of CM BS Yediyurappa's first moves has been to ban the celebrations. This year, for the first time since 2015, Tipu Sultan Jayanti is not being celebrated in the state.
Tipu Sultan's secularism or oppression may be of great historical significance, but perhaps, it is time we left him in the 18th century to focus a tad more on the issues plaguing our current world.