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SurferSpeak: Was Tipu above board?

Our surfer examines a few historical texts that suggest otherwise.

india Updated: Oct 10, 2006 21:17 IST
Vivek Gumaste
Vivek Gumaste

Freedom of expression is a basic tenet of democracy and civilised debate the hallmark of a progressive open society.

Girish Karnad, the Jnanpeeth award winner and a group of "prominent personalities" transgress both these norms by their vociferous opposition to the remarks about Tipu Sultan expressed by Karnataka Higher Education Minister DH Shankaramurthy.

While these so-called intellectuals may have used the weight of their fame (as famous personalities from all walks of life in India are prone to do) to cow down and extract a retraction of sorts from the minister, their stance cannot go unchallenged and needs to be meticulously evaluated for veracity and propriety.

Every public figure or historical personality is fair game for study. If the role of a far greater historical figure and a towering national icon, like Rani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi can come under scrutiny (Raj of the Rani by Tapti Roy, Penguin), what is that immunises Tipu Sultan a regional legend from similar examination?

Is it the fact that he happens to be Muslim? Should historical analysis be clouded by religious partisanship and confined to figures of a specific community? By his differential approach, Girish Karnad appears to be guilty of the same failing that he accuses Shankarmurthy of.

Secondly, rather than obliquely imputing motives to Shankarmurthy's remarks and indulging in name calling (communal versus secular), it would be more fitting to counter Shankarmurthy's assertions by tangible evidence to the contrary or engage the minister in an academic dialogue.

At the primary school level it is natural to expect our heroes to be perfect in all aspects, but a more sophisticated degree of education makes us sceptical of such a naïve version.

Tipu Sultan was no doubt a courageous fighter who put up a valiant resistance against the British. But the question that confronts my mind is: does bravery on the battlefield mitigate or justify the religious coercion of unarmed citizens? Can one extraordinary trait submerge all his other failings?

Life and history is not a balance sheet where the credits wipe out the debts. Each incident must be viewed on its own merits and addressed appropriately especially when they happen to be crimes of grave nature. History and historical figures must be viewed in totality: warts and all.

Let us look at Shankaramurthy's remarks from a purely factual point. Did Tipu prefer Persian to Kannada? Dr Suryanath Kamat, chairman, Karnataka Itihasa Academy quotes a book written by a historian Kirmani, Tipu's contemporary, to indicate that Tipu passed an order in 1792 making Persian the official language in place of Kannada (Deccan Herald, September 22).

Does this make him a Kannada hater? I don't know but it certainly proves that he placed a premium on Persian in reference to Kannada.

Tipu Sultan had other deficiencies as well. He stands condemned of religious bigotry, not by the imputation of others, but by his own words. This evidence has been presented by responsible figures like VM Korath, a former editor of Mathrubhoomi and the noted Kerala historian KM Panicker with corroborating references.

Listed below are excerpts from Tipu's own correspondence, reviewed by KM Panicker in Basha Posini magazine in August 1923 (Tipu Sultan: Villain or Hero, edited by Sita Ram Goel):

1. Letter dated March 22, 1788, to Abdul Kadir: "Over 12,000 Hindus were honoured with Islam. There were many Namboodri Brahmins among them. This achievement should be widely publicised among the Hindus. Then the local Hindus should be brought before you and converted to Islam. No Namboodri Brahmin should be spared."

2. Letter dated December 14, 1788, to his army chief in Calicut: "I am sending two of my followers with Mir Hussain Ali. With their assistance, you should capture and kill all Hindus. Those below 20 may be kept in prison and 5,000 from the rest should be killed from the tree-tops. These are my orders."

3. Letter dated January 18, 1790, to Syed Abdul Dulai: " ... almost all Hindus in Calicut are converted to Islam. I consider this as Jehad."

These excerpts highlight some horrific crimes that cannot be overlooked by serious historians and even concerned individuals. They cannot be wished away as reminiscent of the times especially when it involves the killing of such a large number of people; mind you, not an accepted norm at any point in time in human history.

The fact that these excerpts were published in 1923, when there was no raging controversy on the role of Tipu Sultan and hence no dubious motive for their publication, makes these statements all the more plausible.

Moreover, these assertions cannot be ascribed to the machinations of the Hindutva brigade for the BJP did not exist then and even Hindutva as an ideology was in barely in its infancy.

Independent observations by foreigners also testify to the gruesome nature of Tipu Sultan. Fra Barthoelomeo, a Portuguese traveller who happened to be in the vicinity of Tipu's campaign in 1790 writes (A Voyage to the East Indies):

"Tipu was riding on an elephant behind which another army of 30,000 soldiers followed. Most of the men and women were hanged in Calicut, first mothers were hanged with their children tied to necks of mothers.

That barbarian Tipu Sultan tied the naked Christian and Hindus to the legs of elephants and made the elephants to move around till the bodies of the helpless victims were torn to pieces.

Temples and churches were ordered to be burned down, desecrated, and destroyed... Those Christians who refused to be honoured with Islam were ordered to be killed by hanging immediately.

These atrocities were told to me by the victims of Tipu Sultan who escaped from the clutches of his army and reached Varapphuza, which is the centre of Carmichael Christian Mission. I myself helped many victims to cross the Varapphuza river by boats."

A simplistic view of history and historical figures is unacceptable to the modern, analytical mind. Tipu Sultan by all accounts was a great freedom fighter and probably a Kannada sympathiser (not a Kannada patriot).

Let us credit him for that. But when there is evidence for his wrongdoing (from the horse's mouth as one would say) let us have the intellectual courage and maturity to condemn him for it: if not that would be intellectually dishonesty.

Vivek Gumaste can be reached

All views and opinions presented in this article are solely those of the surfer and do not necessarily represent those of

First Published: Oct 10, 2006 14:05 IST