Great Sultan Great Sultan Great Sultan Great Sultan Great Sultan Great Sultan
News & EventsNews & EventsNews & Events 6_2.gif (1676 bytes)
On the Tiger Trail
S Chandrashekar
evaluates the portraits of Tipu Sultan, the 'Tiger of Mysore', that have been painted by both western colonialist & Indian nationalist historians, and offers a fresh perspective in retrospect.

One of the historical figures who is mired in great controversy is Tipu Sultan. The extensive documentation on Tipu and his activities, both in foreign and Indian languages, throw up conflicting images of the Tiger of Mysore. The image oscillates between denunciation and deification. While a large number of western Colonialist and Indian nationalist historians, including the locals, depict him as an unscrupulous tyrant, others describe him as a revolutionary, republican, moderniser and secular. A few have called him a socialist and visionary.
The very nature of Tipu and his rule has generated a wide variety of materials in several languages scattered all over the world. Most of the published material is in English and presents a highly distorted view. Every Englishman who was in India and had something to do directly or indirectly with Tipu and the contemporary events has left behind some memoir or the other. Since Tipu and his father Haider Ali bitterly fought the English colonialists, there is bitterness in their writings. A very large amount of non-English source material namely, the French, Dutch, Portuguese, Persian, Arabic, Turkish, Marathi, Telegu, Tamil sources remain as and where they are and hence difficult to consult. Further, local sources like ballads, legends, myths and folklore, besides a wide variety of Kannada literary sources, are also not tapped to reconstruct the image of Tipu and his reign.
Col. Mark Wilks, who fought Tipu, was the first to chronicle the events of the time in his historical Sketches of the South India in an Attempt to Trace the History of Mysore in two volumes, which were published in 1810. Wilks set the trend Generation of writers/historians has depended on these volumes. They reflect all the colonial biases against all those who resist and fought them. Beatson, Buchanan, Bowring, Fullerton, Mackenzie, C Rowse, Steward, Campbell, Wodwell, H G Wells, Rice, Martinew, Gleig, Henderson, Munro, C H Phillips, Robson and a host of English writers who followed Wilks have painted Tipu as a bigot, fanatic and cruel. Others like A Dirome, John Malcom, Moore, Goodal and Kirkpatrick, while generally taking an anti-Tipu, anti-India stand, have conceded that Tipu was a good and dynamic administrator.
The hostile attitude of the colonialist school of historians is understandable. They were beneficiaries of the system. Their consciousness was moulded by that ideology and hence their hostility. It was Wellesley and Wilks who described Haider's taking over of the reigns of Mysore as 'usurpation.' The later English writers followed them faithfully. But there was a mission for the British to fulfill behind calling Haider and Tipu `usurpers.' The colonialists were trying to justify and legitimise their own occupation of Mysore, and this was easier if their predecessors Haider and Tipu were called 'usurpers.' If the Muslim sultans could `usurp' the throne from the Hindu Wodeyars, why not the British who, after all, did it to `restore' the Wodeyar family, which again had been exhibiting `steadfast loyalty' to the British throughout? But they did not call it `usurpation' when they dethroned Wodeyar in 1831. They called it `reorganisation' and the period of direct colonial rule from 1831 to 1881 as the `Regulation Period' because it suited them. Of course, none questioned them till recently because the king could do no wrong!.
But the most disturbing features to be found in the writings of Indian historians of the early nationalist phase. They tacitly accept the `usurpation' and `restoration' theories. They seem to take such stances for reasons of their own. They could not understand the divide and rule mechanism of the colonialists, and suffered from colonial hangover. Second, they believed that the State belonged to the Wodeyars, and it was natural that they were restored and that the British should be thanked for that. Further, these writers also believed that the Wodeyars continued the `Vijayanagar tradition' which was supposedly `Hindu' and

protected the 'Hindu dharma.' These writers obviously did not understand that the Vijayanagar and Wodeyar rulers could not be fit into this framework. This framework was a figment of imagination of the liberal nationalist / liberal communalist writers and historians. These writers seem to be ignorant of the fact that they (the writers) would be painting the rulers of the two dynasties as sectarian if they were to be described as such. It is unfortunate that many of these historians have unwittingly tried to portray the rulers of the two dynasties as communal. It is the same communal approach they have applied to Haider and Tipu.
Writers like Hayavadana Rao, G R . Joyser and a host of others from the South castigate Tipu as a bigot. Hayavadana Rao's treatment of Tipu knows no bounds. He seems to surpass even Wilks in denouncing him, by calling him a defiler and plunderer of temples. He writes that Tipu, to compensate for the loss of revenue due to the ban on liquor, 'confiscated funds of the temples and resorted to extinction of Hindu worship.' He goes on to say that 'in 1799 only two temples at Srirangapatnam alone remained open throughout the extent of his dominions.'
What dismays one is the brazenly communal interpretation without any basis.

Tipu was a known patron of temples and religious chiefs. He had compensated the Sringeri Matha for the losses incurred by them due to plundering by the Maratha army led by Parusurambhau who, according to writers of Hayavadana Rao's ilk, were protectors of 'Hindu Dharma.' The work that spews venom against Tipu is authored by I M Muthanna, prefaced by the kingpin of the Hindu communalist
school, P N Oak. The title of the book is Tipu Sultan X'rayed. For both of them, colonialists who enslaved India were 'divine saviours' of India. 'Reviling' and 'vilification' are insufficient terms to describe their attitude towards Tipu.

There are also writers/historians who take a totally pro-Tipu stand and deify him. Whatever Tipu did is described as great, innovative, or revolutionary for them. All adjectives are used to paint a more than life-size image of Tipu Sultan. The worst part is that he has even been portrayed as a great champion of Islam and a killer of all 'infidels.' Such writers forget that such writings provide grist to the Hindu communalists to buttress their own arguments. 'Infidels' in the context clearly were 'foreigners.' And the foreigners for Tipu were colonialists and particularly the British colonialists, for others including the French were regarded as his 'friends.' Such being the case, to interpret 'infidel' as a non-Muslim is a great distortion.

Some other enthusiasts go to the extent of arguing that Tipu had Socialist ideas and his policies were even better than those of the Socialists because Tipu was trying to usher in a socialistic pattern sans authoritarianism, which is inevitable at some stage of socialist revolution. They also claim that Tipu was secular and republican because he had called himself 'Citizen Tipu' and helped the starting of the Jacobin club. It must be pointed out that this is equally a dangerous trend because it can damage the very personality around whom these writers wish to create a halo.

Any attempt to analyse leaders like Tipu is fraught with subjectivity. Tendencies to look at them as angels of virtue or wickedness personified could be discerned in such attempts. Such personalities could be analysed properly by pitting them in their historical context, in space and time. Tipu was not the same throughout. There were changes in him, depending on the changing scenario. All that depended on the exigencies and contingencies he had to encounter in the historical process. To treat him as a 'freedom fighter,' as we understand freedom today, is like describing all those who fought against 'foreigners' as freedom fighters and it could be endless. Even the Dasyus and the Dravidians, who supposedly fought against the Aryans, will have to be described as such. Simply the concepts such as nationalism, secularism and socialism were not available in the situation. It is too much to argue that Tipu was an embodiment of Indian nationalism.

One could argue that had Tipu been victorious in 1799, Indian history could have been different. But ifs in history, which did not occur, cannot be taken up for historical examination, however, tempting it is. Tipu, given the socio-political structure of his territories, could not simply be a bigot. An overwhelming majority of his subjects were non-Muslim. However, monarchical his intentions were, as a shrewd ruler he had to be-tolerant. Moreover, as a practicing
Muslim and a deeply religious man, he respected and tolerated other faiths and their adherents. He does not need a certificate of secularism from over-zealous writers.

It is a fact that he punished those who conspired against him and his authority and joined his enemies. These punishments included forcible conversions to Islam. But it was not to swell the ranks of Islam, but to discredit the conspirators, demoralise them and to check their activities. He punished all his recalcitrant enemies, irrespective of the faith to which they belonged. Otherwise, there can be no explanation for his wars against the Nawabs of Kurnool, Savanur and the Nizam of Hyderabad.

Tipu enjoyed the confidence of his subjects. That was because the taxes levied by him were far less than those levied in other states.
If the Nayaks of Tamilnadu and Malabar formed leagues and supported Tipu against the British, it was because Tipu was less vexatious.

But to say that he was a socialist, by referring to the taccavi loans he extended to small farmers, and the scheme of more dividends for small investors and less a for rich investors, is misplaced. For, if Tipu extended loans to farmers, it was to induce more and more people to take to cultivation, which would also increase the revenues of the State. If there were a large number of people to come forward to cultivate, there would not have been the need to introduce the scheme.

Similarly, the dividend scheme for investors. The scheme was introduced in 1793, after Tipu had lost the war against the British and had to pay a huge sum of
Rs. 3 crores as reparation and pledge his two sons. We have no details
so far to know how the scheme really worked.

Thus, all these issues are to be considered in studying Tipu and his reign. Scholars like me, with no knowledge of several languages in which source material is available, cannot pass the test. The texts containing the information will have to be first deconstructed to reconstruct Tipu and his times. It may be added in conclusion that there is a great need and scope for extensive study and research on the subject.

--Deccan Herald, Sunday May 2, 1999.