Tipu Sultan, the 18th century Mysore ruler, is back in the news.
The Karnataka High Court, on Tuesday, asked the government why it was going ahead with the birth anniversary celebrations of Tipu Sultan, “who was not a freedom fighter, but a monarch who fought the opponents to safeguard his interests”. The court also questioned the logic behind the Congress-led Siddaramaiah government’s plans when tensions are high and violent clashes took place last year during the celebrations.
The Karnataka government had earlier said that it would not be deterred by the opposition and would go ahead with its plans to celebrate the birth anniversary on November 10.
On Sunday the chief minister said: “I see that there is opposition to the celebrations from various quarters. If there is a threat to peace and harmony due to Tipu Jayanti, the government will tighten security and still observe Tipu Jayanti.”
The BJP and RSS will be holding state-wide protests, which will end with a mega rally in Bengaluru on November 8. Interestingly, opposing the government’s plans are also Christian groups, many which accuse Tipu of mass conversions of Christians to Islam. Even local leaders of the Congress are not in favour of holding a grand celebration in Mangaluru and Kodagu — two places where anti-Tipu sentiments are high.
The build up of tension mirrors the atmosphere surrounding the event last year when clashes erupted in the state after the government decided to go ahead with the celebrations, with two people losing their lives in them.
The atmosphere was so polarised that people on both sides of the debate were threatened for voicing their views. Playwright Girish Karnad received death threats, with a tweet reading that he would “meet the same end” as MM Kalburgi, the academician and Sahitya Akademi winner who was shot dead at his residence in August that year. Karnad was of the view that if Tipu was a Hindu he would have enjoyed the same status of Shivaji, and that the Bengaluru airport be named after the Mysore sultan. Pratap Simha, a BJP leader and Member of Parliament from Mysore, received death threats for opposing Tipu Jayanti.
From these developments it is evident that the erstwhile Mysore sultan is a polarising figure — but should that deter one from acknowledging his contribution to society, to modern administration and to even military techniques?
Hindustan Times had then written that “Tipu destroyed temples in lands he conquered but protected and generously supported those within his domain. Overall, his reign was much more textured than Right-wing fanatical portrayals now allow”.
While the Siddaramaiah government should not be pilloried for celebrating a great ruler from the region, it is not clear if it is doing enough to have healthy and informed debates on Tipu Sultan. In the wake of the high court observation, the onus on the government to tread carefully increases.
It is wrong to look at Tipu Sultan from the binary of black and white, good and bad. This holds true for many rulers in history. We should be able to appreciate his contributions to society and at the same time be critical of some of his decisions.
Politicians should refrain from using historical figures to further their agenda — by either promoting some or opposing others. For society to judge historical figures from a contemporary viewpoint is a narrow and often misleading way to arrive at a informed understanding of the past.