Of 'Anti-national' Muslim Kings And Their 'Nationalist' Abusers

Tipu Sultan, the 18th century ruler of Mysore, is the latest historical figure in the line of fire of right wing groups. We are already one down, with Mughal emperor Aurangzeb’s name being removed from a road in New Delhi just a couple of months ago. Aurangzeb’s father, Shah Jahan only narrowly escaped a similar fate.

The event that sparked the protests against Tipu was the celebrations organised by Congress government in Karnataka in the month of November. The CM Siddaramaiah celebrated the birth anniversary of Tipu Sultan at the Secretariat where noted playwright, Girish Karnad remarked that if Tipu were a Hindu, he would have enjoyed a pride of place as the State’s hero, just like Shivaji does in Maharashtra. This was not only a comment on Tipu’s legacy as a monarch but also on the widespread communal common sense.

The event was boycotted by BJP and right wing groups such as VHP organised protests across the state. Their argument was that Tipu was a tyrant; he was intolerant of Hindus, whom he killed and forcibly converted to Islam. Girish Karnad was rewarded with a death threat – he was warned that he would meet the same fate as Prof. M. M. Kalburgi, the Kannada scholar who was shot dead following similar threats. This is hardly a statement of tolerance from those who are keen to highlight Muslim rulers’ supposed intolerance of Hindus!

This is not the first instance of controversy around the figure of Tipu Sultan. A few months ago, it was reported that a film producer was contemplating a movie on Tipu, with superstar Rajnikanth in the lead role as the monarch. BJP and Hindutva groups warned Rajnikanth against acting in the film as Tipu was ‘anti-Tamil’ and Rajnikanth being Tamil should not play the role. Further, they claimed that Tipu killed Hindus, so making a film on him is a distortion of history. It is unclear how an act of making the film could distort history. Were they worried that Tipu would be depicted at a patriot? Or were they more worried that Rajnikanth’s depiction of Tipu would seal his image as a patriot in the minds of people?

In 2014, the Karnataka chose to depict Tipu Sultan on its float at Republic Day parade. The right wing opinion reacted by calling it a typical ‘pseudo-secular’ attempt at appeasing the minorities. Earlier in 1990 when Tipu’s life was televised in ‘The Sword of Tipu Sultan’ produced by Sanjay Khan, there were protests against Tipu’s depiction in it as a patriot.

If one was truly interested in examining the politics of Tipu, one would try to understand his actions in their historical context - a context of bitter rivalry among the Marathas, the Nizam of Hyderabad, and the Sultan of Mysore over control of the Deccan. Those who paint Tipu as a religious fanatic inspired by the sole motive of propagating Islam argue that this is evident in his attacks on Hindus in Coorg and instances of forcible conversion. Having noted that, we must also ask the question, why is it that Hindus in Mysore state were not converted? Why go all the way to Kerala just to oppress Hindus when he could have started at home? Why were no temples in and around Tipu’s capital Srirangapatanam destroyed? Historians have also noted the fact that temples within his domain were protected. When the famous Sringeri Math, established by Shankaracharya, was attacked by the Marathas, Tipu gave financial assistance to the Math and restored the tradition of worship there. Critics of Tipu who wish to paint his every act as religiously inspired, have a strange take on this evidence. An article in DailyO by Sandeep Balakrishna says that the much cited example of Sringeri, was Tipu’s attempt to gain political points, but, his destruction of temples was because of his religious fanaticism. By this (il)logic, Tipu’s act of protecting a Hindu shrine was done for political mileage, but his destruction of Hindu temples cannot be given a political explanation and only proves he was a religious fanatic! Moreover, the author conveniently forgets that it was the ‘Hindu’ Marathas who raided the Math.

The same article points out that there is no nationalism involved in Tipu’s fight against the British; instead he was selfish enough to approach the French and Shah Zaman for an alliance to check the British and maintain his own rule. If Tipu’s attempts at alliance with the French and Shah Zaman are anti-national, shouldn’t the Maratha (and Nizam) alliance with English East India Company be anti-national too? By right wing logic, it could also be a case for calling the Marathas as traitors to their faith, for they were willing to have an alliance with the Muslim Nizam!

While we appreciate that concepts of nationalism, and ‘India’ as a nation are modern concepts, and historical personalities and events should not be studied in that frame, one should also appreciate Tipu’s decision to fight the British rather than get into an alliance against them. While he was aware of need for alliances as a political strategy, he had an even sharper sense of dangers of British imperialism, so as to keep the Company at an arm’s length. By no stretch of imagination can Tipu be called ‘anti-national.’ We should also keep in mind that Tipu’s image as a despot and tyrant was part of the Company’s propaganda against it. It was a justification for the Company to remove Tipu who was a challenge to their ambitions in south India and therefore, a thorn in their side. So, when the BJP and RSS paint Tipu as a despot and tyrant, they are ironically echoing the East India Company’s colonial propaganda! A strange ‘nationalism’ indeed that repeats the myths propagated by those who plundered India, but brand the man who died fighting the plunderers, as ‘anti-national’! And it is all the more strange that the Hindutva groups that vilify Tipu today, worship ‘heroes’ who berated the freedom struggle, begged pardon from the British, and killed Gandhi.

One should also see the controversy over Tipu as part of a larger pattern of using historical persons and events to create divisions between Hindu and Muslim communities. The typical refrain of ‘nationalist’ right wing groups is to show Muslim kings as representatives of Muslims and as Islamic zealots, and Hindu kings as defenders the Hindu faith from attacks by Muslim kings. That is the reason why, earlier in the year, Home Minister Rajnath Singh called the ‘Hindu’ king, Rana Pratap as ‘Great’ and pitted him against the Mughal (read Muslim) king ‘Akbar the Great.’ That is the reason, BJP National Secretary and in charge of its Kerala unit, H. Raja in an interview to about a film being made on Tipu, declared that whoever works in the Tipu movie is anti-Indian and whoever oppresses the original inhabitants of India (read Hindus) cannot be considered Indian (read Muslims = foreigners).

It is not sufficient to say, as Ramachandra Guha has done, that the Congress government should not have provoked a controversy by picking on a medieval monarch as a hero. His argument is that democratic states should not celebrate autocrats as the two political systems are very different and their success depended on differing values. This is true enough, but it is also true that our national symbols are inspired by Ashoka’s pillar capitals. The lion capital appears on our currency, the wheel appears in our national flag. And Ashoka too was an autocrat. Nations necessarily draw upon their past to recognise their present and develop a vision for future.

What should be recognised is that the debate on Tipu is not an abstract academic one but a burning political one. Demonising Tipu is just another pretext to question the patriotism of Muslim citizens in India today. If the country’s popular memory remembers the Rani of Jhansi as a warrior killed battling the British colonial powers without any controversy or quibbling, how can we not remember Tipu Sultan in the same manner?

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