Tipu Sultan: Separating Fact from Fiction
The Congress-led Karnataka government’s 2015 decision to celebrate ‘Tipu Jayanti’ was met with statewide protests and condemnation from just about everyone. Just a year before this, the Karnataka float at the annual Republic Day Parade had also featured his statue. Even Tipu, the radical fanatic that he was, must have rolled in his grave at the thought of his birth being termed as a ‘Jayanti’. The lengths to which people like B. N. Pande, Girish Karnad, and many others have gone in their quest to glorify Tipu and whitewash his atrocities through novels, plays and television shows are laughable. From calling him the savior of Hindus and the comparisons to Chhatrapati Shivaji, such half baked attempts are highly deplorable.
All historical figures should remain within the purview of history. None, even the most barbaric ones, must ever be omitted. But a society has to make a wise choice when it comes to who it chooses to glorify. This path has to be treaded very carefully. When a figure like Tipu Sultan is celebrated, the purpose behind it needs to be examined. When the Karnataka government decided to celebrate a taxpayer funded ‘Jayanti’ of Tipu Sultan, what was it aiming to achieve? Moreover, they couldn’t even manage to get the date right. All this ‘Jayanti’ did was rub salt into old wounds, divide an already polarized world and claim the lives of 2 people.
Tipu Sultan has always been subject to historiographical battles. There is glaring evidence which illustrates his fanaticism and wanton cruelty. But it has been simply been brushed under the carpet for decades in the quest for secularizing him and squeezing him into the mould of a freedom fighter.
Contemporary sources speak abundantly about Tipu’s tyranny, his penchant for conversions and the massacres that were features of most of his campaigns. His conquests don’t seem to have had the sole purpose of militaristic expansion. There is an angle of religious expansion as well. Tipu mounted a campaign to Canara in 1784. He writes in the Tarikh-i Khudadadi,
“…at the same hour were the whole of the Christians, male and female, without the exception of a single individual, to the number of sixty thousand, made prisoners, and dispatched to our Presence; from whence we caused them, after furnishing them duly with provisions, to be conveyed, under proper guards, to Srirangapatna, to the Talukdars of which place we sent orders, directing that (the said Christians) should be divided into Risalas, or corps, of five hundred men, and a person of reputable and upright character placed, as Risaldar, at the head of each. Of these Risalas, four were directed to be stationed at each of the following places, where they were duly fed and clothed, and ultimately admitted to the honor of Islam…”
James Scurry was a British soldier who was imprisoned in Srirangapatna for a period of 10 years. He wrote a memoir after managing to escape. In it he writes,
“…they were driven, to the number of 30,000, to Srirangapatna, where all who were fit to carry arms were circumcised, and forced into four battalions. The sufferings of these poor creatures were most excruciating…”
“…Their daughters were many of them beautiful girls, and Tipu was determined to have them for his seraglio; but this they refused; and Mysore was invested by his orders, and the four battalions were disarmed and brought prisoners to Srirangapatna. This being done, the officers tied their hands behind them. Their noses, ears, and upper lips were cut off; they were then mounted on asses, their faces towards the tail, and led through Srirangapatna, with a wretch before them proclaiming their crime”
In 1790, a British officer called James Kirkpatrick wrote,
“Since Tipu assumed the government, the revenues have diminished greatly, in consequence of his having adopted a different policy from his father. He removed from the hamauldaries all the Brahmins, and others of the Hindu caste, who were well versed in country business, and put Muslims in their places. He removed, from the Biddinore and Sonda countries, about 70,000 Christian inhabitants, who were cultivators of the ground, by which the revenues of these countries sustained a great loss.”
Tipu’s tactic of repopulating this region seems to have had an adverse effect on the economy. But it seems that the zeal to impose his religion on that region outweighed his considerations of revenue.
Coorg had been under the occupation of Mysore from the times of Hyder Ali. The Kodavas of Coorg kept rebelling against Mysore and these rebellions were crushed in the most brutal manner by Tipu. During his campaigns to Coorg, he carried out a systematic depopulation of this region. Around 40000 to 50000 people were captured and shipped off to Srirangapatna where they were converted to Islam. The men were forcibly circumcised while the women were abducted into harems. The trauma of the atrocities afflicted upon them by Tipu is still remembered by the Kodavas who, along with the people of Kerala, were the strongest opposers of ‘Tipu Jayanti’.
Tipu’s campaigns to Malabar were pretty much a leaf from the same book. Here, the forcible feeding of beef was implemented along with the regular dose of forced conversions and circumcisions. This campaign resulted in a mass scale exodus of people from Malabar to neighboring kingdoms. Tipu’s actions recorded by him in the ‘Sultan ut Tawarik’ were even deemed to be ‘too brutal for translation’ by John Wilks, a resident at the Wadiyar court. Wilks writes,
“…among the incidents pertaining to this Raja, he had, during their personal intercourse, offered 400,000 rupees, and the plates of gold with which a particular temple was roofed, on condition of sparing the temple itself; to which proposition the Sultan is made to reply, that he would not spare it for all the treasures of the earth and the sea. He states the destruction in the course of this holy war, of eight thousand idol temples, many of them roofed with gold, silver, or copper, and all containing treasures at the feet of the idol, the whole of which was royal plunder…”
Tipu’s claims of having destroyed 8000 temples are clearly an exaggeration. But even if we consider a part of it to be true, it is just as heinous. Moreover, the need to exaggerate about such things highlights the hatred he had towards Hindus. Later in his account, Tipu goes on to express joy over the large amount of people he has managed to convert during his conquest of Malabar. In a letter to Burduz Zamaun Khan, he puts the number at 4 lakhs. In a letter to Syed Abdul Dulai, he writes,
“With the grace of Prophet Muhammad and Allah, almost all Hindus in Calicut are now converted to Islam. Only a few are still not converted on the borders of Cochin State. I am determined to convert them also very soon. I consider this as Jihad to achieve that object.”
Francois Ripaud, was a French sailor who had stayed in Mysore during Tipu’s reign. His diary was discovered by his descendants in Paris in the late 20th century. He writes therein,
“…In his repeated attacks on Malabar, Tipu devastated the warrior Nairs with his atrocities and religious intolerance…”
“… (In Calicut) most of the Hindu men and women were hanged. First mothers were hanged with their children tied to their necks. That barbarian Tipu Sultan tied the naked Christians and Hindus to the legs of elephants and made the elephants 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. Christian and Hindu women were forced to marry Mohammedans, and similarly, their men were forced to marry Mohammedan women. Christians who refused to be honored with Islam were ordered to be killed by hanging immediately…”
“…To show his ardent devotion and steadfast faith in the Mohammedan religion, Tipu Sultan found Kozhikode to be the most suitable place. Kozhikode was then a centre of Brahmins and had over 7,000 Brahmin families living there. Over 2,000 Brahmin families perished as a result of Tipu Sultan’s Islamic cruelties. He did not spare even women and children…”
“…I’m disturbed by Tipu Sultan’s treatment of these most gentle souls, the Hindus. During the siege of Mangalore, Tipu’s soldiers daily exposed the heads of many innocent Brahmins within sight from the fort for the Zamorin and his Hindu followers to see…”
Given all these accounts, it wouldn’t be a far cry to link the current demographics of Kerala to the forced conversions carried out during Tipu’s reign.
Compared to the tyrannical behavior displayed by him during his campaigns, Tipu’s treatment of his subjects was relatively better. However, the cruel streak did resurface once in a while. For instance, in 1790, Tipu ordered the massacre of 800 Mandyam Iyengar Brahmins of the village of Melukote, an important centre of learning and Srivaishnavism, on the day of Narakchaturdashi. To this day, the Mandyam Iyengar community does not light a single lamp on Diwali, since it is observed as a period of mourning.
There are instances of grants being made to temples under Tipu’s reign. However declaring him to be the “savior of cows and Brahmins” on the basis of these grants is laughable. The reasons behind such grants and donations were complex and layered. Religious institutions had always functioned as centers of power in India. Grants to these institutions weren’t solely of the religious nature. Such donations were made in order to consolidate power, seek legitimacy and ensure stability. Many a times, these grants were hereditary and were just carried on by future kings. Large temples were also often used to store wealth.
In the case of Tipu, there is another layer to these donations as well. Tipu was an extremely superstitious man and an ardent follower of astrology. The temples he patronized were where his astrologers used to reside and the priests of these temples were instructed to “pray for his victories”.
When it comes to the figures of Tipu’s grants, they are frequently exaggerated. A popular number of ‘156’ floats around on social media. G B Mehendale has raised some serious doubts about the authenticity of this list since it has only been talked of till now and the actual list has never been seen.
Just like the grants to temples, the number of Tipu’s Hindu ministers is often exaggerated. There were Hindus employed in his services, just as there were Hindus employed by the Sultans of Delhi and the Deccan. But these ministers were appointed not on the merit of their religion, but on account of their ability to do their jobs. Tipu had inherited a kingdom which had had Hindu rulers for a long time and had been carved out of the Vijaynagar Kingdom itself. Replacing current ministers with ministers of a particular religion is a gradual process and can’t be drastic. The same rule is valid to Tipu.
Tipu’s Jihadi tendencies are seen in a whole host of ways, ranging from calling his kingdom ‘Sultanat e Khudadad’ to renaming cities like Mysore, Calicut, Chitrapur and Devanhalli to Nazarabad, Islamabad, Farukh ab Hissar and Yusufabad. The inscription on his sword read,
“My victorious sabre is lightning for the destruction of the unbelievers. Haidar, the Lord of the Faith, is victorious for my advantage. And moreover, he destroyed the wicked race who were unbelievers. Praise be to him, who is the Lord of the Worlds! Thou art our Lord, support us against the people who are unbelievers…”
He replaced Kannada with Farsi as the official language and the traditional dating system was also changed. Under his rule, it was declared that mosques were to be built at the expense of the state in villages that didn’t have any. The proselytization did not stop here. Large tax reliefs were handed out to people who converted to Islam. Tipu also commissioned a lot of literature about religious fanaticism wherein subjects like holy wars and conversions received a lot of focus. In his own letters and accounts, Tipu uses the phrase “honored with Islam” to describe forced conversions.
Tipu’s harem included 333 women, the majority of whom were originally Hindus. They had been captured from families whom the Sultan had imprisoned or killed. Among them were two sisters of the Raja of Coorg, the wife of Tipu’s treasurer and the daughter of Kalopant Pethe, the diwan of Vyankatrao Bhave of Nargund. When Dharwad was seized from the Marathas, a number of women were also captured along with the fort.
The notion that Tipu Sultan was a freedom fighter was sown a long time after his death and is an absolute fallacy. The fact that Tipu fought against the British doesn’t make him a freedom fighter. By that logic, everyone from the Mughals to the Peshwas would have to be declared as freedom fighters. Tipu was an 18th century ruler who fought to spread his kingdom and his religion, just like his contemporaries and those before him. The term ‘freedom fighter’ itself is a colonial term. On many occasions, he also sought help from foreign powers like the French, the Afghans and the Turks against his own countrymen.
In the end, Tipu is a complex puzzle and an enigma for any historian. That is why he should be left to the realm of history. If at all any person wishes to celebrate a ruler like Tipu, it should be done at their private expense. The very idea of statewide, taxpayer funded celebrations should be strongly rejected. To paraphrase S. L. Bhyrappa, calling Tipu a national hero attempts to whitewash the atrocities that he had committed in the name of religion. Healthy relationships between communities should not be built on false foundations, but on solid truth, forgiveness and reconciliation.
Author – Ashutosh Potnis