Tipu Jayanti: Is there a shortage of respectable Kannadigas?

Last Updated: Thu, Nov 12, 2015 20:48 hrs
Tipu Sultan

Karnataka is on the boil lately, thanks to the surprising decision of the Congress-ruled Karnataka State Government to suddenly elevate the erstwhile king of Mysore, Tipu Sultan, into a pan-Kannadiga hero, giving him a grand celebration.

The problem is even if someone is an atheist, they would still have to be uncomfortable with Tipu's blood-soaked legacy. Let us not make any excuses here.

To be fair, a lot of Tipu's history comes from British sources, and we can dismiss 90% of them for the rubbish fabrications which they are. It is rare for the British to have gotten any Indian history right, and at the time, when they wrote about Tipu, he was a much hated figure as one of the most formidable enemies of the British in India.

The Karnataka government is choosing to highlight this aspect of Tipu's life to convert him into a 'freedom fighter'. An idea which melts like ice on a hot afternoon under the slightest of examinations.

To begin with - he, the ruler of an independent Mysore kingdom, attacked the British and their allies after allying himself with the French to expand his own domains. How can you be a freedom fighter if you aren't under the rule of the people you are fighting? In fact it can be easily argued that the people fighting against him, mostly fellow Indians, were fighting for their freedom from his rule. 

The fact that he lost the battle to the British makes him as much as a freedom fighter as his ally Napolean was one.

Secondly, Tipu was a formidable enemy indeed, but not of the British alone. He was, so to speak, the enemy of everybody, in all directions, at all times.

A warmonger and deadly military leader, by his own actions and accounts, he made it clear that he dreamed of building a massive Islamic empire, much like the Mughals.  He fought with the Marathas in North Karnataka. He battled the kingdoms of Kerala - Travancore and Malabar - in the West. He fought in Tamil Nadu in the South and East.

And most importantly for Karnataka, he brutally fought other Kannadigas - the Sira, the Kodagus and the Malnad Kannadigas under the Nayakas of Bednore.

And though the stories are wildly exaggerated, no battle of his is complete without tales of atrocities. This is not so unusual for the time. Be it Ashoka the Great, Akbar the Great or Shivaji Maharaj - all military leaders have fought battles where they brutally killed their enemies. War is not for the soft-hearted.

But every wild story has some truth in it - the basis for the lie. Once you strip out the fanciful stories of millions of forcible conversions and rivers of blood, what becomes clear is that terror was Tipu Sultan's chosen method of subjugation.

Be it the Nairs of Kerala or the Kodagus of Karnataka, those who would not accept his rule faced a state-sanctioned policy of extermination - perhaps even genocide in the case of the Nairs. Tens of thousands were killed in endless invasions, deportations and repeated massacres.

It is unclear how many people he had forcibly circumcised and converted to Islam, but certainly that was the fate for many thousands. And death came to women as easily as it came to the children. There are no concrete figures for rape, but it is difficult to believe Tipu's armies treated the women who fell into their arms with any kindness.

It is also clear that he used 'Jihad' as a politically expedient banner to motivate his mostly Muslim soldiers, whom he repeatedly exhorted to kill infidels, burn lands and destroy temples. Which they did very cruelly in Kerala, Mangalore and North Karnataka.

What about the historical records of his grants to hundreds of temples, not to mention his famous defense of the Matha of Sringeri? These are also true.

We live in politically correct times, where our leaders are expected to conform to certain ideals of human rights and 'live and let live'. As an absolute ruler of an independent kingdom, Tipu had no such considerations. His whim was the law. He did whatever he felt was necessary, and he didn't have to have a 'reason' or fixed, universal 'ideology'.

He was certainly good to the people he considered 'his'. These happened to be the people within the boundaries he inherited from his father - Hyder Ali. There is no indication he was cruel to his own people. He reformed Mysore, introduced many good laws and maintained law and order. He did whatever it was his people liked, and since they were mostly Hindus, this involved a lot of temple grants and similar Hindu-related activities. He also treated 'his' Hindus well, some of whom held the highest posts in his Kingdom. For example Tipu Sultan's treasurer was Krishna Rao, a Shamaiya Iyengar. In the end, he was good to his own people.

But he certainly did not consider himself a multi-faith ruler. He was a devout Muslim himself and preferred Islamic culture and the Urdu language, which he did a lot to promote. And he was merciless towards the people whose lands he invaded in his endless bids to expand his kingdom.

Without going into the long details of Tipu's extremely complicated and packed life, the figure that emerges through the veil of time and biased historical records is still one of a vicious, but capable military leader.

He was a warlord who started too many fights, used treachery to win some battles and had whole populations put to the sword and destroyed entire provinces without mercy. He was a product of his times - a brutal man in a brutal age.

He seems to have achieved true secularism only in the way he was defeated. He, a Muslim, allied himself with the Christian French, only to be ultimately defeated by a coalition of Christians (the British), Hindus (the Marathas) and other Muslims (The Nawab of Hyderabad).

He lived by the sword and died by it.

As for Bangalore, he did finish the Lal Bagh, which we Bangaloreans are thankful for, even though the iconic Glass House was built by the British. And yes, he was born in Devanhalli, where the airport currently is.

Girish Karnad felt that this was a good reason to name the airport after him. Common sense says there are many more, less distasteful Kannadigas whose names could have be considered - King Mayuravarma, the Hoysala Kings, philosopher poets like Basaveshwara or Kanakadasa, secular heroes like Vishveswaraiya or Kuvempu, just to name a few.

As for the Karnataka Government's pretenses -

To claim he was a freedom fighter because he started a fight with the British is a joke. He not only lost that fight, thereby putting Mysore under the British in the first place, but his actions directly cemented the British's rule in Southern Indian for the next two hundred years.

To claim he was a hero of the Kannadigas is an insult to the Kannadigas of Kodagu and Mangalore especially, and the rest of the Kannadigas who did not happen to already be within the Mysore Kingdom at the time, since all of them faced his sword.

To claim he was someone who needs to be celebrated at all is an extremely distasteful snub to our brothers and sisters in Kerala, whose lands still bear the scars of the Tipu's assaults, and whose population still can recall his attempted genocide.

Perhaps there will come a time when Tipu Sultan is hailed by Indians as a great military commander, perhaps in a few hundred more years. But for now, this is an unnecessary celebration. There is no shortage of honourable Kannadigas to celebrate. 

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