The real Tipu Sultan

(Published in The Indian Express, February 21 2023)

Writing in September 1785 to his envoys in Pune — the seat of the rival Maratha state — Tipu Sultan of Mysore was a man annoyed. There had been a dispute between local Muslims and Hindus, and Tipu’s agents had publicly sided with the former, pressing the Maratha authorities to resolve the matter. This was, the sultan warned, stupid: Instead of posing as champions of Islam, he wished his men to take a pragmatic view. For any “fire of discord” between Maratha subjects — Muslim and Hindu both — would breed internal infirmities, weakening that enemy power from within. In fact, he added, if at all his ambassadors wished to participate, they should have covertly fanned the flames, instead of trying to advertise “zeal”. Realpolitik, it appears, then, triumphed over faith for Tipu Sultan — at least in this instance.

Nearly 250 years later, Tipu and his motivations continue to animate debate in India. There is, of course, the tedious seasonal controversy on whether or not his birth anniversary should be celebrated as a public event. And as elections approach, Tipu is habitually resurrected as a proxy for all Muslims and their supposedly perfidious tendencies. As declared in a speech by the Karnataka BJP chief Nalin Kumar Kateel recently, the 2023 Karnataka assembly election is not just a regular democratic exercise. It is, on the contrary, a civilisational war between the “offspring of Tipu” and those who sing “bhajans of Ram”. The irony is that the sultan might have chuckled at this: Our esteemed politician too, after all, is seeking political advantage in exploiting communal cleavages.

But, between contingencies of 21st century Indian politics and the world of 18th century kings, how might we locate the “real” Tipu Sultan? If anything, the record seems quite mixed. Here was a man who, when invading Malabar, deployed jihadist rhetoric, and pressed conversion on enemies. We see, thus, a dozen Parappanad royals compelled to live as outcasts after Tipu’s men forced Islam on them. But equally, we also have the sultan’s exchange with the Jagadguru at Sringeri. To this Hindu grandee, the same Muslim king sent Siva lingams with instructions on their worship. Even as Malabar Brahmins fled Tipu’s army, helming the sultan’s own government was a Mysorean Brahmin. Indeed, after the British seized Mysore, this man, Purnaiah, advocated for its return to Tipu’s kin, instead of to the (Hindu) Wadiyar dynasty.

How, then, do we grasp Tipu? To begin with, it would help to place him in context. Where we are tempted to view religion as the prime governing factor for kings, typically, it was one of several elements that went into crafting kingship. Tipu certainly viewed himself as Muslim, but his kingly policy — as clear in his letter to Pune — entailed taking a flexible view when it came to defending other Muslims. Where convenient — as during the invasion of Malabar — he might employ fiery language against “infidels”, while all the same, to win legitimacy at home, he could be issuing instructions for the puja of “infidel” deities. Such selectivity was not unique, nor was it a solely Hindu-Muslim dynamic. Emperor Aurangzeb attacked the sultanates of the Deccan, on the count that their rulers were Shia and, thus, heretics. This when his own mother was Shia.

Kings, thus, behaved in seemingly contradictory ways — contradictory to us, that is, because we imagine them as acting in a linear fashion and for simplistic reasons in black and white. But, in fact, like politics today, political life in the past too was complex. That said, the implications of kingly deeds on those on the ground should not be dismissed either. Thus, even as one calls out exaggerations and political dog-whistling, one must be wary of minimising the suffering of those who faced the sultan’s wrath. No matter how many Mysore Brahmins he patronised, Tipu’s hostility to their castemen in Malabar generated real pain. Identities often crystallise around memories of persecution, and — with the increasing interplay of communalism with nationalism today — these can be deliberately weaponised, to serve new purposes and projects.

The recent remarks from Karnataka are proof of this, mixing memories of the worst aspects of Tipu with contemporary ideological schemes. The sultan, like all kings, was obviously a flawed human being. Like monarchs in general, possessed of so much power, he could be cruel in some settings, and generous elsewhere. He might seem a more devout Muslim in certain phases of his career, and less so in others. In his resistance to the British, he comes across as a national icon; in his handling of Hindus and Christians in conquered territories, he appears bigoted. Different parties highlight different sides of the same figure in isolation, to achieve specific ends. Yet in actuality, Tipu was a compound of all these. But then again, a sober, contextual view of things makes only for good history; politics, on the other hand, is pivoted on emotion, in dishing which out, nuance takes a leave of absence.