Tyrant or nationalist? Bigot or enlightened moderniser? No marks here for guessing that the new object of these fruitless, rhetorical queries is the 18th century Mysore monarch, Tipu Sultan. Raging debates on TV channels, social media and the newspapers alike have revived competing views about the contradictory figure, but they have done nothing at all over the past few days to budge those entrenched on both sides of the latest history war. If anything, public exposure has hardened each side's resolve to either bury him as the blackguard or exalt his purported "nationalism" and "secularism".
It is somewhat futile now, in this always inconclusive, but high-decibel battlefield, to adopt the sanctimonious ground of the fact-respecting historian who protects her territory from invasion by people equipped largely with memories, real and imagined. History has gained such a huge and lively public presence in India, in legislatures and TV rooms, in streets and maidans, in courtrooms and on the internet, shrinking the space of the professional historian to a small corner.
In fact, history has become the court room itself, for judging the past rather than understanding it. Professional historians have long laboured to peg out an understanding of the past, based on careful examination of evidence, buttressed by an ability to corroborate, and imaginatively produce a persuasive narrative. But today's history wars are based on a sense of the past, sometimes but not always relying on evidence as much as on perceived insults and injustices, which must be settled in the court house of history. Like well entrenched legal adversaries, winning the battle is more important than the tactics that are used.
So it may be less useful to trade facts and more worthwhile to think hard about the kinds of alleged "historical wrongs" and "hurts" that are being remembered or created, what they tell us about the anxieties of the present, and when they are made justifiable as a basis for political action at all. By focusing on this sense of the past, we may better clear the air.
In the public sphere so far, we are repeatedly enjoined to line ourselves up either with the secular historians, or those who claim that their ancestors suffered "historical wrongs" in the time of Tipu. When confronted with the irrefutable evidence of Tipu's support of a large number of temples, for instance, the "historically wronged" will claim that it was political expediency that prompted such action, cheerfully forgetting that such expediency was the very stuff of south Indian Kingship. When reminded of the depredations of Tipu and his conquering army in the regions of Malabar, Canara and Coorg, the "secular historians" will draw on the exhausted capital of anti-colonial nationalism, when colonialism was nascent and the nation not yet a gleam in the eye. While touting his modernising impulse and his undeniable valour in remaining the implacable foe of the British, they remind us that he must be understood as a man of the 18th century. Neither side is willing to speak about history as something that is continually evaluated and refashioned given the needs and demands of the present.
Let me give two or three examples, widely separated in time. In 1831, the peasants of Nagar (in present day Shimoga district) when launching their rebellion against the extractive revenue regime of Krishnaraja Wodeyar III, were haunted by the memory of better times: "While we were under the dominion of family of Caladi Sivappa Naik, who governed this country for many years and also in the days of Nawab Bahadur Tippoo, we were in a state of happiness…" Although the memory of virulent opposition to Haider Ali's conquest of Nagar in 1763 had not faded in 1831, the exactions of both Purnaiah and Krishnaraja Wodeyar III cast a warm glow on the time of Tipu Sultan.
More than a century later, as India prepared itself to become a republic, a remarkable document that was rooted in the political ideals of citizenship was created, itself a culmination of anti-colonial nationalism. Nandalal Bose, the illustrator of the Constitution, thought it entirely appropriate to use Tipu's image to illustrate the spirit of the 18th century and the valour of one who died fighting the British (the only Indian ruler to do so).
I first encountered hostility to the legacy of Tipu in 1995, at a conference in Hyderabad, when I was accosted by a complete stranger who told me never to forget that Tipu had burned the rosewood forests of Coorg. Of late, the hostility to Tipu's memory has gathered force, whether in resisting the proposal to name the new airport, situated in the village of his birth, Devanahalli, or the proposal to start a university in his name at Srirangapatna, where he had housed his excellent library.
The contingent use of history is abundantly evident. His energy, his desire to transform the region of Mysore, his relentless experimentation, and his far sighted economic measures (some of which, such as state-led industrial development, were realised more fully only in the early 20th century,) have fuelled his image as a "moderniser". His lifelong effort of containing the British, though unsuccessfully, has led to him being hailed as a "nationalist". It is his undoubted support of temples and mathas in times of need that credentialise his "secularism". It is the decision of the Khodadadi Sarkar or God Given Government to use Persian as the language of the court that earned him the reputation of being "anti-Kannada". It is the persistent, though sometimes exaggerated, declaration of his intolerance of "unbelievers" that has led Tipu to be denounced as a bigot.
There is a refusal to grasp the possibility that he may well represent all the tendencies without the contradictions that we may today: there was an easy trafficking between religiosity and secularism, or from being anti-British and pro-French in his quest for modernity, or in his simultaneous support for and occasional attacks on places of religious worship.
What we would get is a richly ambiguous historical figure who is not easily amenable to a "nationalist", "secular", "tyrannical", "pro Islamic" readings. What then does one do about "historical wrongs" in the present day? We must confront the possibility that there are historical wounds as opposed to "historical wrongs" that give rise to "hurt sentiments". What is the difference? If a historically constituted structure of power continues to oppress and denigrate certain groups and communities, as in the case of Dalits today, we could call it a "historical wound" that requires redressal. Today, neither the Kodavas, the people of Malabar, or Canara are continuing to suffer the effects of the 18th century; if Kannada is a dominated language today, it is more because of the widespread and growing desire for the internationally hegemonic English in the last six decades; the Khodadadi Sarkar has long given way to the ambivalent gifts of representative democracy.
We would do well to learn from those who have come to terms with the past in different ways. We must find the resources to develop a new historical temper that acknowledges and accepts the inconvenient contradictions of our past.