Tipu Sultan: A Convenient Controversy at the Cost of History

Why is Tipu Sultan a controversial figure in Karnataka?  

4 min read
The Karnataka government has announced the celebration of Tipu Sultan Jayanti on 10 November.

(In the light of the BJP government in Karnataka cancelling the Tipu Sultan Jayanti celebrations, The Quint is republishing this story from its archives. It was originally published on 9 November 2017.)

Karnataka is witnessing one of the most politically polarised atmospheres of recent times, and in the eye of the storm is the legacy of the erstwhile ruler of Mysore – Tipu Sultan.

So why did Tipu Sultan and his legacy become controversial in Karnataka?

Tipu, who had ruled the Mysore Kingdom in the 18th century, became an integral part of Karnataka’s history. Though there were critics of Tipu Sultan in the Malanad region of the state, it was only in 2006 that he became a polarising figure.

Ahead of the 2018 Assembly elections in the state, the two major parties – the Bharatia Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress – are politicking over Tipu’s legacy.

In 2006, the then Higher Education Minister, D Shankar Murthy, started a public debate, alleging Tipu Sultan was anti-Kannada because he made Persian the kingdom’s official language. Several eminent people, including actor and playwright Girish Karnad, came out challenging the minister to a public debate on the topic.

The issue was soon picked up by political parties, and over the years, it became a political controversy that polarised the state. The political parties have also managed to fuel the aversion against Tipu in Kodagu and Mangaluru enough for it to engender aggressive and violent protests over the years.


Why Is Tipu Controversial?

The BJP, which has been one of the vocal opposition voices against the ruler of Mysore, has amplified its rhetoric to the people of Kodagu and Mangaluru, where Tipu led his conquests.

Although the numbers vary, history shows that during Tipu’s conquests, several thousand Kodavas and Mangaluru Christians were either killed or captured by his forces.

The Bengaluru police have restricted all kinds of public processions on the occasion of Tipu Jayanti.
The Bengaluru police have restricted all kinds of public processions on the occasion of Tipu Jayanti.
(Photo Courtesy: The News Minute)

Since he became a polarising figure, these historical facts have been used and misused by political parties. While the BJP went on to portray him as a Muslim ruler who persecuted Hindus out of religious bigotry, for the Hindu vote bank, the Congress projected him as a great ruler who fought valiantly against the British and introduced administrative reforms, eyeing Muslim voters.


Territorial Ambition, Not Communal Dislike Behind Attacks

Tipu Sultan confronts his British enemies during the siege of Srirangapattanam.
Tipu Sultan confronts his British enemies during the siege of Srirangapattanam.
(Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

Narendar Pani, a political analyst and professor at the School of Social Sciences at Bengaluru’s National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), pointed out that politicians are trying to project the events of the 18th century with the delusions of the modern era.

In the 18th century, Tipu’s conquest was not a communal attack, but conflict between different kingdoms. The fact that he attacked the Nizam of Hyderabad more than the Marathas shows that his intentions were territorial rather than communal. This being the 18th century, his method of achieving it was violence.
Narendar Pani, Political Analyst

Pani also pointed out that though the Britishers had slaughtered several thousands of Indians during the battle for Bangalore Fort and in other places, that part of history has been conveniently ignored in this new political narrative, even though many of those slaughtered by the British were Hindus.


Land Reforms and Opposition

Pani added that areas where the opposition to Tipu has emerged have a connection with Tipu’s land reforms. “He introduced a land reform where the land was directly leased from the king, and there was no place for landlords. In areas like Malabar, Kodagu, and Mangaluru, where the landlord system was prevalent, there was opposition to his policies. When they resisted, he came down heavily on them. If you look at old Mysuru, where land reform was adopted successfully, Tipu was a hero,” he added.


Was the BJP Always Against Tipu? No

As it turns out, BJP governments have spoken in support of Tipu Sultan. According to a report in the The News Minute in 2012, the Department of Kannada and Culture had published a book titled ‘Tipu Sultan – A Crusader for Change’. Authored by Dr Sheikh Ali, the 338-page monograph speaks of Tipu’s achievements, acquisitions, and his fight against the British Empire. In the book, there is a message from the then Chief Minister, BJP’s Jagadish Shettar.

One part of the message reads, “The modern history of Karnataka covering the period 1782-1799 is known for the significant role played by Tipu Sultan, popularly known as the tiger of the Mysore kingdom. His concept of nation-state, his idea of State entrepreneurship, his advanced military skill, his zeal for reforms, etc. make him a unique leader far ahead of his age.”


So, Why Are We Fighting Over Tipu?

History becomes the first casualty of cultural politics. According to Harish Ramaswamy, political analyst and professor of political science at the Karnataka University, polarisation is one of the oldest political tricks, and controversy over Tipu is another occasion political parties are using it.

“They always create an enemy for you to hate or victim you want to support. Even though, historically, it is known that the prosecutions by Tipu were not communal but retaliation to rebellions, political parties want you to believe otherwise,” he said.

Calling the entire controversy a “bankruptcy of ideas politics,” he said that people buying into the parties’ polarising politics is the biggest danger to democracy.

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