Tipu Sultan was a false hero

To claim that he fought against the British for India’s freedom ignores historical truths and defies logic.

 |   Long-form |   29-12-2014
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Apart from a colossal electoral loss, May 16, 2014 resolutely demonstrated the ultimate rejection of the Congress brand of secularism, reducing the mighty national party, which ruled India for six decades to a paltry 44 seats in the Lok Sabha. The loss did not end there: in the last six months, the Congress has been reduced to dust in successive state elections — Haryana and Maharashtra being the most substantial losses. The only state of any significance remaining with the Congress today is Karnataka.

Yet it seems that the party has learned no lessons. The Siddaramaiah-led Congress government in Karnataka appears to think that the solution to what is being remarked as the party’s "existential crisis", is a sharper version of the same, six-plus decades of secularism.

One of the latest manifestations of this sharper secularism is chief minister Siddaramaiah announcing the launch of the Tipu Jayanti celebrations from this year, funded by the taxpayer. Indeed, the chief minister was open about why he was doing this:

“There has been a lot of pressure from various quarters to celebrate Tipu Jayanti. We have decided to take this into consideration and will announce the date shortly," Siddaramaiah had said at the release of a book Tipu Sultan: A Crusader for Change, authored by historian professor B Sheik Ali.

Siddaramaiah had earlier claimed that “Tipu Sultan was a secular ruler. He was a model king in the entire country. A section of people criticise him out of prejudice.”

That history writing in India has been the subject of fierce controversy is now an article of faith, especially following Arun Shourie’s seminal expose of the Indian history establishment in his Eminent Historians, a classic in its own right. Shourie, among other things, exposed in detail how in both official and dominant history textbooks and narratives at all levels — from school to university to general/popular history — do several things simultaneously as we shall see.[i][i]

This narrative typically begins by endorsing the discredited Aryan Invasion (or Migration) Theory as a historical fact and exhibits its distinctive character when it deals with the protracted Muslim rule of India during the medieval period. In turn, this character demonstrates several key features. In no specific order, it includes a demonisation of Brahmins as the root cause of everything wrong with India — from the ancient past to the present. And then there is the whitewashing of the long and voluminous record of Muslim atrocities against Hindus — mass murders, forced conversions, large scale temple destructions and the economic emasculation of Hindus by imposing the Jiyza tax and the Dhimmi status. The narrative also downplays the cultural, civilisational, and economic excellence attained by India under great Hindu dynasties like the Mauryas, Sungas, Guptas, Satavahanas, Cholas, Chalukyas, Hoysalas and the Vijayanagar Empire to name a few.


Needless to say, none of these is possible without wilful and wholesale distortion of historical truths, a fact that has been debunked and rebutted extensively and spread across numerous scholarly volumes by stalwarts such as Sita Ram Goel, Ram Swarup, Harsh Narain, Arun Shourie, Koenraad Elst, Meenakshi Jain and others (a partial bibliography has been provided at the end of this piece). [ii][ii]

The other facet of whitewashing the historical record of Muslim atrocities in India is donning cruel despots and tyrants as benevolent and progressive rulers. The classic example is Aurangzeb, the bigoted tyrant par excellence. Even a casual perusal of Jadunath Sarkar’s five-volume History of Aurangzib or the shorter India of Aurangzib or even the primary source, the authorised biography of Aurangzeb, the Masir-i-Alamgiri has ample evidence to show for his fanaticism and hatred against Hindus. Yet, our school and university and other books of popular history paint him in nearly the opposite light.

And Tipu Sultan is in many ways the "Aurangzeb of the South". As the author of a book on Tipu Sultan (Tipu Sultan: The Tyrant of Mysore, Rare Publications, Chennai), I am both amused and amazed at the continuing efforts to paint him as a hero, patriot, and freedom fighter.

To be sure, the Tipu myth gained currency after Bhagvan S Gidwani’s distorted novel named The Sword of Tipu Sultan, where Tipu is hailed as the “tiger of Mysore” among other things.

It is instructive to examine the assessment of Gidwani’s novel by the historian and scholar IM Muthanna in his comprehensive Tipu Sultan X-Rayed published in 1980:

Gidwani’s Tipu has a political value today, especially after the Congress government in 1974, perhaps to oblige the Muslim voters, released a commemoration stamp on Tipu, and described him as a "freedom fighter". Releasing a 50-paisa postage stamp commemorating Tipu in July 1974, a minister of Karnataka said that Tipu was "a hero" of Karnataka, "the defender of freedom," and so on. The chariman of the stamp releasing committee wanted the writers to present a true and faithful account of Tipu. Well… Gidwani has obliged him, rather sneakily, and in the form of a novel.

Muthanna was both perceptive and prophetic given how the Tipu myth was since used in the service of vote bank politics. But there was another review of Gidwani’s novel predating Muthanna’s book by four years. The December 19, 1976 edition of Hindustan Times carried a scathing review of the Sword of Tipu Sultan by MC Gabriel:

The author’s effort throughout is to rebuild the past closer to his heart’s desire. But anyone will grant that such consideration is extra-historical… it is a pity that… he could not put his material to better purpose than giving us just his private views… To say that Tipu was "the first nationalist", "a believer in communal harmony" and an "apostle of non-violence"… is quite uncalled for. 

This detailed look at the Sword of Tipu Sultan was essential because much of the material for Tipu myth-making is derived from this book. In our own times, Girish Karnad’s Kannada play, Tipuvina Kanasugalu (The Dreams of Tipu Sultan) borrows approvingly from Gidwani’s book.

But what is astonishing is the manner in which this myth has persisted despite the availability of copious amounts of primary sources regarding Tipu Sultan which prove the exact opposite of what Tipu myth-makers claim. These include and are not limited to letters he wrote to various officials in his administration and military, letters he wrote to himself (in the form of a journal/diary) [iii][iii], eyewitness accounts by his contemporaries (Indian, French and British), land and other records. Indeed, we can construct an accurate picture of the life, times, character and legacy of Tipu Sultan using these primary sources even if we don’t want to rely on any history textbook about him — both that glorify him or otherwise. And that accurate picture is not pretty.

The most charitable description of Tipu Sultan after a survey of these sources is to call him the tyrant of Mysore. His 17-year-long regime was primarily a tenure of military and economic terror as far as Hindus were concerned. He razed entire cities literally to the ground and depopulated them.

As representative samples, we can examine his raids in Coorg and the Malabar for the extent and scale of sheer barbarism and large scale destruction.

In 1788, Tipu marched into Coorg and burnt down entire towns and villages. Mir Hussein Kirmani, Tipu’s courtier-cum-biographer describes how the raid resulted in the burning down of villages in Kushalapura (today’s Kushalnagar), Talakaveri, Madikeri, and other places. Additionally, Tipu in a letter to the Nawab of Kurnool, Runmust Khan describes how he took 40,000 Coorgis as prisoners and forcibly converted them to Islam and “incorporated them with our Ahmadi corps.” Already a thinly-populated country, Tipu’s brutal raid followed by large-scale prisoner-taking depopulated Coorg of its original inhabitants to a severe extent. To Islamise Coorg, he transported about 7,000 Muslim families belonging to the Shaikh and Sayyid sects to Coorg from elsewhere.

The intensity of Tipu’s raid was so terrifying that hundreds of temple priests fled to Mangalore along with their families. Worship came to a permanent halt in several temples. Some temples were covered with leaves in order to conceal their presence. The Maletirike Bhagavati temple at Virajpet is a good example of this. Equally, the renowned Omkareshwara temple in Madikeri was about to meet the same fate — the then ruler at Madikeri panicked at the approach of Tipu, removed its tower and replaced it with a dome so that it looked like a mosque from afar. The temple continues to retain this appearance till date. In his raid of Napoklu near Madikeri, Tipu destroyed the temples in the surrounding villages of Betu and Kolakeri.

Remnants of Tipu Sultan’s savage raid of Coorg survive even today — the forcibly converted Coorgis are today known as Kodava Mapilas (Coorg Muslims) whose last/family names are still Hindu — representative examples are surnames like Kuvalera, Italtanda, Mitaltanda, Kuppodanda, Kappanjeera, Kalera, Chekkera, Charmakaranda, Maniyanda, Balasojikaranda, and Mandeyanda.

To the Kodavas, Tipu’s fanatical dance of death in their homeland remains a wound that will never heal.

When we turn to the Malabar, the record is equally, if not gorier. Indeed, Tipu’s incursions into the Malabar can form the subject of an independent book. Like in Coorg, remnants of Tipu’s disastrous campaigns in the Malabar can be seen even today in the region. The city that bore the brunt of his excesses in the Malabar is Kozhikode (Calicut). William Logan’s Malabar Manual, the Malabar Gazetter, the Portuguese missionary Fr Bartholomew’s Voyage to East Indies, the German missionary Guntest and accounts by various contemporary British military officers contain first-hand accounts of how Tipu razed the city to the ground. An excerpt from Bartholomew provides us a representative glimpse:

First a corps of 30,000 barbarians who butchered everybody on the way… followed by the field-gun unit… 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 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 Mohammadans and similarly their men were forced to marry Mohammadan women. 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 Varappuzha, which is the centre of Carmichael Christian Mission. I myself helped many victims to cross the Varappuzha River by boats.

The devastation in Calicut was so comprehensive that it changed the character of the place forever. Calicut was home to more than 7,000 Brahmin families. Thanks to Tipu, more than 2,000 of these were wiped out, and the remaining fled to the forests. In the words of the German missionary Guntest, “[A]ccompanied by an army of 60,000, Tipu Sultan came to Kozhikode [Calicut] in 1788 and razed it to the ground. It is not possible even to describe the brutalities committed by that Islamic barbarian from Mysore.”

If this was not enough, we have testimony from the horse’s mouth. Tipu Sultan in letters to Syed Abdul Dulai and his officer Budruz Zaman Khan respectively gloats thus:

With the grace of Prophet Mohammed and Allah, almost all Hindus in Calicut are converted to Islam. Only on the borders of Cochin State a few are still not converted. I am determined to convert them also very soon. I consider this as Jehad to achieve that object.

Your two letters, with the enclosed memorandums of the Naimar (or Nair) captives, have been received. You did right in ordering a hundred and thirty-five of them to be circumcised, and in putting eleven of the youngest of these into the Usud Ilhye band (or class) and the remaining ninety-four into the Ahmedy Troop…

I have achieved a great victory recently in Malabar and over four lakh Hindus were converted to Islam. I am now determined to march against the cursed Raman Nair.

It is also pertinent to mention an extract from Life of Tipu Sultan published by the Pakistan Administrative Staff College, Lahore in 1964 [iv][iv]:

Tipu imprisoned and forcibly converted more than a lakh Hindus and over 70,000 Christians in the Malabar region (they were forcibly circumcised and made to eat beef). Although these conversions were unethical and disgraceful, they served Tipu’s purpose. Once all these people had been cut off from their original faith, they were left with no option but to accept the very faith to which their ravager belonged, and they began to educate their children in Islam. They were later enlisted in the army and received good positions. Most of them morphed into religious zealots, and enhanced the ranks of the faithful in Tipu’s kingdom. Tipu’s zeal for conversion was not limited only to the Malabar region. He had spread it all the way up to Coimbatore.

As I mentioned earlier, there’s enough material on Tipu’s ghastly raid on the Malabar to merit an independent volume but these should suffice. In passing, it must be said that the consequences of his invasion was all-encompassing. Until his aggression, the Malabar region was a flourishing hub of pepper and spice trade throughout the world. However, when Tipu burnt and destroyed several cities and towns in one disastrous sweep, this trade was killed almost overnight. Pepper cultivation was completely stopped.

Even today, the Malabar people retain the deadly memory of his invasion in the form of just one Malayalam word: padayottam. [v][v]

Much is made by Tipu apologists of how he was kind towards Hindus and how he gave gifts to the Sringeri Mutt. One swallow indeed does not a summer make. Chapter 11 of my book debunks this myth in detail but here’s the short version.

William Logan’s Malabar Manual gives a detailed list of all the temples Tipu had destroyed in Kerala, and Lewis Rice in his Mysore Gazetter holds that “in the vast empire of Tipu Sultan on the eve of his death, there were only two Hindu temples having daily pujas” and further estimates he had destroyed eight thousand temples in South India, a number which Colonel RD Palsokar also confirms in his study on Tipu Sultan.

The gifts to Sringeri Mutt was more on the lines of realpolitik: Tipu had been badly beaten and weakened during the Third Anglo Mysore war of 1791. He was also smarting from a recent raid by the Marathas who had then become all-powerful. It was to placate the Hindus in his dominion that Tipu gave the said gifts.

The source of much of his cruelty and sprees of savagery owes to his religious fanaticism. Tipu Sultan regarded himself as the protector of Islam and went to extreme lengths to make the world aware of this fact.

Consider these: One of the major things Tipu did after taking over the Mysore throne in 1782 was to rename cities and towns with Hindu names to Muslim ones. He also changed weights and measures to be consistent with the tenets of Islam. So, he changed the kos (unit of measuring distance)from two miles as “consisting of so many yards of twice twenty-four thumb-breadths, because the creed (Kalmah) contains twenty-four letters,” to quote Lewin B Bowring. [vi][vi] If this was not enough, Tipu also changed the measurement of time. To quote Bowring again, “Tipu founded a new calendar…giving fantastic names to the years, and equally strange ones to the lunar months. The year, according to his arrangement, only contained 354 days, and each month was called by some name in alphabetical order.” Tipu’s calendar began with the year of the birth of Prophet Mohammad, and even gave names to years as Ahand, Ab, Jha, Baab, and so on.

Indeed, Tipu made no secret of his hatred for infidels — both Hindu and Christian. After his death in 1799 in the Fourth Anglo-Mysore War and the fall of his capital Srirangapattana to the British, Colonel William Kirkpatrick discovered more than 2000 letters in his palace written in Farsi in Tipu’s own handwriting. In these letters, Tipu refers to Hindus as “kaffirs and infidels” and to the British as “Christians” who needed to be “cleansed (or converted) if the rule of Islam is to be firmly established in India.”

Until Tipu took over, official administrative records were written in Kannada and translated to Marathi. Tipu did away with both these languages and enforced Farsi as the administrative language of the Mysore state. The vestiges of this change are visible in the administrative language used by the present day Karnataka Government: “Khata,” “Khirdi,” “Pahani,” “Khanisumari,” “Gudasta,” “Takhte,” “Tari,” “Khushki,” “Bagaaytu,” “Banjaru,” “Jamabandi,” “Ahalvalu,” “Khavand,” “Amaldaar,” and “Shirastedaar” and so on.[vii][vii]

Tipu also appointed only Muslim officers to key posts in both the military and administration irrespective of merit. MH Gopal in his Tipu Sultan’s Mysore: An Economic History avers thus:

Mussulmans were exempted from paying the housetax and taxes on grain and other goods meant for their personal use and not for trade. Christians were seized and deported to the capital, and their property confiscated. Converts to Islam were given concessions such as exemption from taxes… [Tipu] removed Hindus from all administrative posts and replaced them with Mussulmans with the exception of Diwan Purnaiah…

This has an echo in William McLeod who was appointed by the East India Company Government as the Superintendent of the Land Revenue department after Tipu’s death. McLeod discovered that “the list of the chiefs of every province or district contained only Muslim names like Sheikh Ali, Sher Khan, Muhammad Syed, Meer Hussain, Syed Peer, Abdul Karim, and so on. There was nary a…non-Muslim name.”[viii][viii]

Finally, we can examine the greatest myth about Tipu Sultan: that he was a brave freedom fighter and patriot who sought to liberate India from British rule. The easiest way to deflate this myth is to look at the timeline of both Tipu Sultan and world history. The notion of nation states and the rhetoric of patriotism became prominent mostly in the latter half of the 19th Century in Europe.

Until the British Crown took over India as one of its colonies and introduced European concepts such as nation states, nationalism, patriotism, democracy and so on, and indeed, the concept of the whole of India as a nation state was alien to the Indian experience. Until then, India was conceived variously as Jambudvipa, Bharatavarsha and so on, and was united by a common cultural strand rooted in the Vedic civilisation and its various offshoots and streams.[ix][ix]It was only in 1858 that India became a nation in the sense of a colony ruled by Great Britain.

And so if we examine Tipu Sultan’s timeline beginning with his birth in 1753 up to his death in 1799, it becomes clear that the British East India Company, a business enterprise, was fighting for the economic and military supremacy of India. The French were the only other major contender. The Marathas posed as the most powerful threat to the British during Tipu’s rule. More importantly, the whole of India was not united politically as a single nation under any ruler. And like the Marathas, Tipu Sultan too was engaged in constant battle to expand his empire in order to bring the “infidel land under the sword of Islam.” [x][x] Therefore, to claim that Tipu fought against the British for India’s freedom ignores historical truths and defies logic. If we accept this claim to be true, we also need to accept the fact that Siraj-ud-Daula was also a freedom fighter who fought for the “freedom” of India.

In fact, the opposite is true. Tipu’s various correspondences with the French, preserved at the India Office in London indicate how he conspired with them to drive out the British and divide India between them. Tipu also invited the Afghan ruler Zaman Shah to invade India and help the cause of Islam. [xi][xi]

This then is the near-comprehensive history and legacy of Tipu Sultan which leaves no doubt as to the kind of ruler he was or the nature and extent of his barbarism.

The Siddaramaiah-led Karnataka Government has now declared that it will use taxpayer money to celebrate an annual Tipu Jayanti starting this year. My parting observation on this proposed move is something I read somewhere: naming a road in Aurangzeb’s honour in Delhi is akin to naming a road in Hitler’s honour in Israel. And so it is with Karnataka. And Kerala. And all other places where Tipu wreaked havoc.



[i][i] Eminent Historians: Their Technology, Their Line, Their Fraud. Arun Shourie

[ii][ii] Bibliography on historical distortions:

·         Hindu Temples: What happened to them (Volumes 1 and 2), Sitaram Goel

·         Indian Muslims: Who are they, K.S. Lal

·         Nationalism and Distortions of Indian history, Dr. N.S. Rajaram

·         Negationism in India - Concealing the Record of Islam, Dr. Koenraad Elst

·         Perversion of India's Political Parlance, Sitaram Goel

·         The Rigveda - A Historical Analysis, Shrikant Talageri


[iii][iii] Select letters of Tippoo Sultan, Colonel William Kirkpatrick

[iv][iv]Life of Tipu Sultan—Pakistan Administrative Staff College, Lahore, translated by Bernard Wycliffe

[v][v] Tipu Sultan: Villain or Hero? Compiled by Sitaram Goel

[vi][vi]Haidar Ali and Tipu Sultan, Lewin B Bowring

[vii][vii] It is impossible to build a strong nation on the foundation of falsehoods, Dr. S.L. Bhyrappa 24 September, 2006.

[viii][viii] Tipu Sultan X-rayed, Dr. I.M. Muthanna

[ix][ix] Bharatiya Samskruti (in Kannada), Dr. S. Srikanta Sastri. Paraphrased and translated by the author.

[x][x] See Footnote iii

[xi][xi] See Footnote viii


Sandeep Balakrishna Sandeep Balakrishna @sandeepweb

The writer is a technologist, author of Tipu Sultan: The Tyrant of Mysore, the English translator of SL Bhyrappa’s Aavarna, and independent scholar.