Politicising the Sultan: The debate over Tipu Jayanti in Karnataka | india-news | Hindustan Times
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Politicising the Sultan: The debate over Tipu Jayanti in Karnataka

The debate on celebrating the second annual Tipu Jayanti is underway in Karnataka with the usual suspects taking the usual ideological positions

india Updated: Nov 09, 2016 15:30 IST
Preethi Nagaraj
A tableau depicting Tipu Sultan moves past during full dress rehearsals for the Republic Day parade in New Delhi.
A tableau depicting Tipu Sultan moves past during full dress rehearsals for the Republic Day parade in New Delhi.(AP File Photo)

The debate on celebrating the second annual Tipu Jayanti is underway in Karnataka with the usual suspects taking the usual ideological positions. The Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have taken to the nasty sniping that could easily fuel the kind of acrimony, which has claimed two lives in Kodagu last year over the same issue.

It isn’t surprising that the BJP and the Congress are sticking to their positions on the state government’s plan to celebrate Tipu Sultan’s birth anniversary on November 10. Karnataka is gearing up for assembly polls in 2018 and every electoral issue is being milked dry for what it is worth.

South Kodagu lawyer KP Manjunath filed a PIL against the celebrations recently. The Karnataka high court posted the PIL for hearing on November 8 and on the same day, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and other right wing bodies held protests against the event in Bengaluru. The chief Justice of the Karnataka high court, Subhro Kamal Mukherjee, commented, “As far as my knowledge of history goes, he (Tipu) was not a freedom fighter but a ruler of a princely state. What is the use of celebrating this? Even if the Nizam of Hyderabad had come, he would have countered him in the same way.” The court postponed the PIL appeal hearing with the sardonic and completely accurate addendum, “Let his soul rest in peace as his Jayanti celebrations would cause trouble to the government.”

The story so far

Last year, the Karnataka government declared that November 10 will be celebrated as Tipu Jayanti . It said this had been a long-standing demand of those who admired the Mysuru monarch as a freedom fighter for his trenchant battle against the British. Politicians and scholars are sharply divided over the declaration. Tipu is credited with two large-scale massacres: that of the Kodavas who were killed and tortured and forced to join Tipu’s “Ahmadi” army -- the name Tipu assigned to the battalions formed of prisoners of war -- and Mandyam Iyengars who were executed in large numbers in Melkote. Manjunath’s PIL says, “If Kodava today is one of the second least populated race in this world, it’s because of a barbaric character from history as Tipu Sultan [sic]. Tipu’s barbarism reached its peak from 1760 to 1790 and this period is considered as one of the most gruesome eras in the history of Kodavas.”

The RSS and its affiliates maintain, as they did in 2015, that Tipu does not deserve this kind of state-sponsored adulation because he killed Hindus and Christians in large numbers during his expansionist drive across the coastal districts of Karnataka and in Kerala’s Malabar areas.

The Siddaramaiah government has described these voices as communal and stayed with their argument that Tipu was, in fact, a freedom fighter. Last year, noted writer Girish Karnad had fiercely defended Tipu’s contribution to Karnataka, comparing him to Shivaji. If Tipu was a Hindu, his work would have been better acknowledged, Karnad said, demanding that the Bengaluru International Airport be named after the 18th century Mysuru king, instead of Kempegowda, the 16th founder of the city of Bengaluru. Karnad’s remarks raised a huge political furore in the state and ended in Karnad apologising for his remarks and chief minister Siddaramaiah saying that Karnad’s remarks had nothing to do with the government.

But the government intends to observe Tipu Jayanti and has reportedly planned celebrations in every district of Karnataka and earmarked Rs 60 lakh towards it, apart from a celebration in Bengaluru that will cost the state Rs 10 lakh.

Dinesh Gundurao, working president of the Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee has been quoted as saying, “It is the RSS and the BJP who want to politicise this issue. Don’t we celebrate Mahatma Gandhi’s anniversary? He was shot down by the RSS. Don’t we celebrate Deendayalji’s anniversary? Tipu has contributed so much to Karnataka, towards sericulture. He made the first missile and also was the only ruler who fought against the British four times.”

Was Tipu a tyrant?

When he ruled his “khudadad (god-given)” state, Tipu had extended his empire well beyond Mysuru. In these battles and campaigns to annex more territory and subjugate more people, did Tipu behave like a tyrant?

The answer is both yes and no. 

While the Karnataka high court is right in saying that a retrospective colouring of Tipu as a freedom fighter doesn’t make sense, neither does it make sense to be shocked that a ruler of his times pillaged and killed his enemies. No one, however, can deny that Tipu’s roots lay firmly in Karnataka. How then did this ruler, who lived and died for a land that he believed was his own, become one of its most controversial figures centuries after his death?

In relatively recent times, Tipu has been recast as a greedy and tyrannical ruler. Political hay-making is likely to ensure that Tipu may soon reach the super-villain status that Aurangzeb now occupies in popular culture. This recasting ignores the fact that all monarchs, at some point in history, have sealed the geographical borders of their kingdom through various means: setting up check-posts, creating an informer base, tracking enemy movement and ensuring that communities living in border districts have unshakeable loyalty to the king. Tipu’s unapologetic rampage across the hills and coastal terrains of the region was a strategy to keep enemies out, one that many rulers adopted, Mysuru-based historian Dr Hanur Krishnamurthy reminds us.

Other historians have argued that Tipu didn’t pick on non-Muslim communities because he was a fundamentalist. Many rulers of his time used equally brutal tactics to consolidate and expand their empires. Some even argue that contrary to rightwing propaganda, Tipu was not a fundamentalist individual, even if he used religion to push his empire. Tipu was a staunch Sufi goes one version. His father Hyder Ali, it is said, had great reverence for a Sufi saint ThippeRudraswamy of Nayakana Hatti, close to Chitradurga in central Karnataka. Even now, scores of believers from near and far attend the local jatre (village fair) to commemorate the connection between the shrine and the Alis.

Folklorists say there are still stories in the region about ‘Tipu Sultan, the son of Hyder Ali and Fathima’. Dr MG Eshwarappa, a well-known folklorist now in his seventies, has worked extensively on the legends of Chitradurga and surrounding areas. According to him, Tipu’s name still evokes love and affection in the area.

“Sufism has its roots in Islam and Hinduism as well. It is believed that Tipu’s name was chosen to approximate the saint’s because he was born with his blessings. The name Tipu is otherwise rare in Islam,” Eshwarappa says. It is also said in local lore that the Sufi saint cured Tipu of a deadly disease and the monarch became his lifelong follower. 

A more pragmatic version lies outside this dichotomy of Sufi freedom fighter vs blood-thirsty Hindu-hater. Kate Brittlebank argues in her book Tiger: The Life of Tipu Sultan, “Along with their magnificent displays of power and wealth, kings were expected to be conspicuously pious. They made land grants, donated precious artefacts and mediated in religious disputes. In return, they could expect support for the legitimacy of their rule and prayers for the security and prosperity of the realm. Tipu behaved no differently: his generosity to temples, Sufi dargahs and mosques, as well as the great Math at Sringeri, are well documented, primarily through inscriptions and institutional records.”

Eshwarappa says Kodava anger against Tipu’s exploits is understandable but points out that the community has been attacked by other rulers as well. “It is a question of Kodagu identity and history. They have faced grave injustice at his hands. But they should also oppose the celebration of the birth anniversary of the tyrannical 19th century Lingayat king Chikaveera Rajendra who tortured and killed many Kodava women and men during his rule. No Kodava ever visits his palace in Kodagu except out of academic interest.” 

It is interesting to note that Kodagu, traditionally a Congress seat, has been leaning towards the BJP. Kodavas might have nothing to do with the Hindutva ideology, particularly given their own meat-eating and wine-making traditions. But if they could have the BJP without the accompaniment of the Sangh, they probably would. In the last general elections, Kodagu (Mysuru-Kodagu has been a constituency since the 2009 delimitation) voted for a Congress MP Adagur H Vishwanath. But, in 2014 Kodagu picked the BJP’s Pratap Simha, a relatively young journalist-turned-politician.

In recent district panchayat elections too, the BJP lost considerably to the Congress but won in Kodagu. In Tipu, the BJP has finally found a cultural issue as they are on the same page as the Kodavas. Otherwise, they have had to rally around issues such as supporting the price for coffee beans or man-animal conflict in the district.

In 2015, the anti-Tipu protests were also bolstered by Catholic groups in Mangaluru, who protested the celebrations, saying they still mourned the deaths of 4,000 Catholics killed by Tipu. They also reminded everyone of the historical wound to the Catholics of Mangaluru when Tipu destroyed the Milagres church (built in 1680) in 1784. The church has been since rebuilt and is a pilgrimage site. No greater example of strange bedfellows can be cited than the Catholics joining the Sangh in this protest because the more recent attack of this church was in September 2008, an attack for which the VHP and the Bajrang Dal had claimed responsibility.

The other voices in the debate

Mohandas Pai, former CFO of Infosys and prominent angel investor, issued a statement last week where he said the event is equivalent to celebrating Aurangzeb’s birth anniversary. “Tipu was a religious fundamentalist” and the state should not make a role model out of him, he said in his letter to the state government. He added that only the men and women who “actually” contributed to Karnataka’s identity, like Mysuru statesman and administrator Mirza Ismail or the royal Wodeyars of Mysuru, should be felicitated by the government. As a fairly vocal right-leaning social commentator, this is an unsurprising position for Pai to have taken. But there are some surprising notes of dissent in this debate. While progressive writers in the state have stood by its Congress government on many occasions, a few are actively opposed to the Tipu Jayanti celebrations. 

Writer Shashi Deshpande has called the celebrations a waste of money and politically-motivated. She believes that no historical figure, no matter what their religion, needs this kind of an anniversary splash funded by public money. Gauri Lankesh too called it a vote bank gimmick that could lead to more violence of the kind that Kodagu saw last year. She has been reported as saying that no government has any business organising jayantis of any kind.

The Karnataka government continues to be moderately gung-ho. MR Seetharam, the minister for planning, statistics and science, and more importantly also the state’s Kodagu district in-charge, told the media that Tipu celebrations will be low key to respect the sentiments of communities that feel aggrieved by his actions. “The government cannot stop celebrations because some people are opposed to it. We live in a democracy. Just as we have space for opposition, we have space for acceptance too,” he said. 

That said, the Karnataka government seems to follow the maxim of trust in god but tie your camel. On November 7, they requested the home ministry to deploy 1,600 paramilitary personnel while they celebrate Tipu. Finally, a move that an 18th-century ruler would understand.

(In arrangement with Grist Media)