Tipu Sultan And The Double-Edged Sword Of History

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Symbol of pride A tableau of Tipu Sultan leads the way for the Karnataka contingent at the Republic Day parade in Delhi in 2014
Symbol of pride A tableau of Tipu Sultan leads the way for the Karnataka contingent at the Republic Day parade in Delhi in 2014

O Lord, let them not say: To whom belongs he, to whom, to whom? Let them say: he is ours, yes ours, ours! O Lord of Meeting Rivers, Let them say : a son of your house!

—Basavanna, Twelfth century Virashaiva Kannada poet

Yet, the battle over the identity of a son, his importance to Kannadigas is now a bone of contention. Karnataka’s very own Tipu Sultan, an integral facet of Kannada pride and history, is in choppy waters. Last week, the Congress-led government decided to celebrate Tipu Jayanti on 10 November, a day before Diwali, for the first time. Alleging that the decision was a ‘political move’ set with the purpose of appeasing the Muslims in Karnataka, the Sangh Parivar protested against the celebrations. The protests turned violent and claimed the lives of two when the protesting Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) clashed with the Muslim group taking out a procession for commemorating Tipu.

“Not one but three VHP activists were killed in the clash,” says Surendra Jain, VHP all-India secretary. “The Muslim group — the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI) from Kerala, began the attack on the VHP activists who were peacefully sitting on a dharna. The Karnataka Police have already started arresting the perpetrators yet the government and the media say that it is a clash between the VHP and the Muslim group. The so-called secular politicians from here and Kerala, along with pseudo-secular journalists, are responsible for the death of our activists.” he says. “Even if there are different versions on Tipu, what was the necessity of celebrating Tipu Jayanti now? This is nothing but a purposeful step of the Congress to be a ‘role model’ for the Muslims.”

To the Muslims of Mysore and South India, Tipu is the quintessential hero from history, the one who valiantly fought against British invaders. “Even before we started our lessons in history, as children, we knew about the brave Muslim king Tipu, each tale narrating an episode from his life,” says Shuhab Chowdhry, a research scholar who hails from Bengaluru.

Not only Muslims, but Hindus too have referred to Tipu as their ‘protector’. For BA Saletere, the first historian from Mangalore who pioneered the documentation of the socio-political history of the 18th century Vijayanagar Empire, Tipu was the “defender of Hindu dharma” and “a saviour of one of the greatest spiritual centres of learning that belonged to a religion other than the one he professed.”

However, popular opinion on the ‘secular’ and ‘anti-colonial’ character of Tipu also has its detractors. Stating that he was ‘anti-Hindu’, ‘anti-Kannada’, ‘anti-Tamil’, a bigot and tyrant, many right-wing critics have laid out facts to prove the same. Such discussions on the ‘political correctness’ of Tipu Sultan have been around for a long time.

However, it is in the wake of the tussle between the Congress government in Karnataka and the BJP opposition that the Tipu debate has, all of a sudden, turned severely communal. “There is nothing wrong in celebrating Tipu Jayanti,” says Subhashini Ali, former MP and CPI(M) politburo member. “However, the Congress party could have planned this out by forming a proper committee and discussing it, since the BJP almost runs a parallel government in Karnataka.”

Amidst debates on the political battle of appropriating and condemning Tipu by the Congress and the BJP respectively, an important point is being wholly overlooked. “Neither side is willing to speak about history as something that is continually evaluated and refashioned given the needs and demands of the present,” writes historian Janaki Nair in a recent article on the issue. Subhashini too, raises a similar argument. “Our approach at documenting the lives of kings who lived hundreds of years ago through modern concepts like secularism and modernism is flawed. At that time, the duty of rulers was not religious propaganda but to fight wars and rule, which could be construed as ‘atrocities’,” she says.

The rule of Mughal kings and British colonialists gave way to the freedom struggle which in turn gave us our first elected government, the fundamental block to building a nation. The nation’s history, rich in terms of religious and cultural diversity, is also replete with the memories of a past marked by the fight against the coloniser. Inevitably, the archiving of this past led to representations of historical icons in folklore, stories, comics, TV serials and books; the nationalist history project. For example, in 1971, when Anand Pai, founder of Amar Chitra Katha realised the necessity of educating children in Indian culture and history, he began featuring historical figures in his comics. Starting from Chatrapati Shivaji, the 17th century Hindu Maratha King, he featured several kings and queens from the medi eval era and also narrated stories of freedom- fighters like Subhash Chandra Bose. In 1990, Doordarshan aired the serial The Sword of Tipu Sultan, based on a novel written by Bhagwan Gidwani as a part of the same history project.

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