Beyond the Tipu Sultan legend: Why celebrating the great Mysore ruler today is so vital

Sanjay Khan
Sanjay KhanAug 03, 2019 | 12:00

Beyond the Tipu Sultan legend: Why celebrating the great Mysore ruler today is so vital

Karnataka's BJP govt has cancelled Tipu Jayanti, celebrating a ruler once hailed for his bravery and genius, but seen by the right wing as a bigot. We must reexamine Tipu Sultan.

The BJP government in Karnataka has done away with Tipu Sultan celebrations. But, as it is vital to remember Tipu Sultan, in this first-part series, I lead you into the life of Tipu Sultan, the ruler of Mysore.

The recent efforts of the Hindu right to project him as a Muslim bigot show that their political stakes in him have changed.

Any opinion on the rule of Tipu Sultan in Mysore will in fact be incomplete without mention of the political situation prevailing in and around Mysore towards the end of the 18th century. Mysore, which had emerged from the ruins of the Vijayanagar empire, was moulded into a small but dynamic Hindu state primarily during the rule of Chikka Devaraja Wodeyar in the early decades of the 18th century.

The Wodiyar kings, who had been ruling Mysore for over 300 years, were only nominal rulers by then — the actual power was wielded by their prime ministers or ‘dalavai’.

Tipu’s father, Haider Ali, began his career in Mysore around 1749, as a soldier under one of these powerful ministers.

He used his tact and bravery to stave off Maratha raids into Mysore, fought against the British and expanded Mysore’s territory down south to the coast of wealthy Calicut. He thus eased himself into the title of the ‘sarvadhikari’ or ‘regent of the kingdom’ in 1760.

After Haider’s death in 1782, Tipu took over his father’s position, keeping the Wodeyar king as a proxy but publicly continuing to put on a show of respect. Tipu’s appropriation of this position would not have been possible without the assistance of some of Haider’s closest friends and advisors as well as the acquiescence of the local populace, who had by then come to see a stronger and more prosperous Mysore under Haider and the young Tipu.

From Madras, the British were cautiously observing the rise of Mysore — and resented Haider’s and Tipu’s push into Malabar.

sanjay-khan-3-inside_080219065139.jpgTipu Sultan took over Mysore in 1782: He remains its most iconic ruler. (Still from The Sword of Tipu Sultan: Via Author)

A 17-year-old Tipu had given the British a fright by galloping with his army into the East India Company’s garden house near the beach in Madras.

He rattled them so much that the governor there fled offshore in a small boat. A series of four Anglo-Mysore Wars started in 1767. These propelled the hitherto unknown Kingdom of Mysore into the powder rooms of Europe and America.

The first war saw Mysore dictating terms to England at the gates of Madras; the second war was Tipu’s brightest moment. At the battle of Pollilur (1780), the sun-and-tiger-stripes banner of Tipu’s Mysore oversaw the worst disaster that ever befell an English army in India — out of 3,000 men in the British army, only about 400 survived.

With these two victories, the mood in England began to change — and a vicious propaganda and diplomatic campaign against Mysore began.

By 1785, one in seven Englishmen in India was imprisoned by Tipu. By this time, the British had won in Plassey and Buxar; the whole of India except the Punjab and the Marathas had capitulated to them. Tipu’s Mysore stood as a bulwark against the British. What rankled the British even more was that here was a native ruler — or ‘despot’, as they branded all of them — who was different from the others.

He did not while away his time in pleasure orgies, nor leave the management of state to some palace coterie; and not once did he ask the British for help against his neighbours. He created an army which, in the words of his nemesis, Arthur Wellesley (later Duke of Wellington), was “the best fighting force in the whole of India”.

He took advantage of the enmities being played out in Europe, recruited the French as willing allies and drilled his army in modern European manoeuvres.

british-india-today-_080219070724.jpgGiving It Back: Unlike several other princely states, Tipu Sultan took the British head-on in ferocious battles. (Picture: India Today)

Mysore was the first state to demonstrate the efficacy of rockets in war by modifying what was until then a mere firecracker into something that could carry a sword or wooden blade with it. Tipu even sent back French weapons with a letter stating they were substandard compared to the ones in his arsenal.

Working almost 18 hours a day, he kept meticulous records of revenue and personnel across his kingdom. He created a set of revenue regulations that rationalised land taxes — and even offered subsidies to farmers if they farmed more land. Landowners and temple trusts with excess landholding were asked to hand it over to landless or tenant farmers. He created a navy that sent ships with his diplomats to meet the Ottoman sultan in Constantinople and the French emperor in Paris. He built a powerful navy, consisting of 20 battleships of 72 cannons and 20 frigates of 62 cannons.

A separate board of admiralty was established in September 1786 and massive dockyards at Jamalabad, Wajidabad and Majidabad were constructed on the west coast to build 40 warships and a number of transport ships to strengthen the naval power. The 200-odd forts under Tipu’s reign were mostly named on Hindu script ions.

An elite group of Brahmin civil servants was nurtured during his early rule to make sure that revenue was properly collected. His forts were among the strongest in south India and his currency so beautifully minted that the Mughal emperor apparently felt slighted at receiving coins more beautiful than his own — he even minted coins with Hindu deities on them.

Deep in the midst of war, he wrote of receiving silkworms to create the silk factories of Mysore.

Sugar and paper factories were established for the first time under him. Sword blades and gunpowder were manufactured locally. He was also liberal with gifts to Hindu religious establishments in Mysore and Malabar after subduing it.

sanjay-khan-2-inside_080219071245.jpgA Visionary Leader: Tipu Sultan was an extraordinary mix of courage, skill and heart. (Still from The Sword of Tipu Sultan: Via Author)

The third Anglo-Mysore war in 1792, with Cornwallis at the helm of the British army, did not go well for Tipu.

He was hard-pressed by the British-Maratha-Nizam allied powers to surrender half his kingdom, submit to a war indemnity of ₹3.3 crore — and deliver two of his sons as hostages to the British. Thanks to his financial prudence, he managed to pay the British their ransom and have his sons released a year earlier than the stipulated three years.

This period between 1792 and the fourth Mysore war in 1799 was one of great tribulation for Mysore — rebellions raged and finances were tight on account of the indemnity paid. However, it is to Tipu’s credit that not once during his rule, in the midst of almost incessant war, did his subjects suffer from famine or pestilence.

At the same time in British Bengal, millions of Indians perished in a famine...

(To be continued).

Last updated: August 03, 2019 | 18:07
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