World: India squabbles over the legacy of Tipu Sultan

Click to follow
The Independent Online
TWO HUNDRED years after his glorious death in battle, Tipu Sultan, "the Tiger of Mysore" as he is known, has come back to haunt modern India with some difficult questions.

Tipu Sultan ruled the southern Indian state of Mysore for the last 20 years of the 18th century. With his stubborn defiance of Britain's East India Company and his insistence on governing his ancestral land his own way, he proved to be Britain's toughest Indian foe. It took four wars before they broke him.

So passionately did he hate the English that he had a French instrument maker construct him a large model of a tiger crouched on top of a Redcoat, eating him. When the mechanism is operated the tiger utters terrible roars while the soldier moans and feebly waves his arms. On Tipu's death, his mechanical tiger was looted from his palace at Seringapatnam, and has long been a popular exhibit (still in working order) in the Victoria & Albert museum in London.

Despite this evidence of bloodthirstiness, Tipu was by the standards of the time a model ruler, progressive, cultured, "a sophisticated man", according to one Indian scholar, "who understood what Europe's entry into India signified". His fault for the British, in the first flush of empire building, was simply that he refused to bend the knee.

He was therefore a tempting subject for posthumous canonisation when India finally succeeded in throwing the British out 150 years later, and it is as a proto-freedom fighter that his life is being celebrated this month, 200 years after his death. In Mysore last week, the governor of Karnataka state inaugurated a year-long celebration of the bicentenary that will include the opening of a co-educational Tipu Sultan boarding school later in the year.

But there is a problem: Tipu was a Muslim. For Hindu nationalists he therefore fits into a different category - alien invader, destroyer of Hindustan. So when, last month, a Tipu Sultan Commemorative Council was set up to co-ordinate Tipu celebrations in the southern state of Kerala, a local member of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP's) national council, Mr K Raman Pillai, said it was "unnecessary and highly objectionable".

"During his attack on Kerala, thousands of temples were destroyed and thousands of Hindus converted to Islam by force," Mr Pillai said. "Today in Mallabar, in the north of Kerala, 40 per cent of the population is Muslim. That is the legacy of forced conversions."

On top of that, the nationalists claim, he was not even a pukka Indian. "He came from a family that had roots abroad," said another BJP member from Kerala. "He was of Arabian stock."

Mukul Kesavan, a history lecturer at Jamia Millia Islami University in Delhi, argues that it is "complete rubbish" to say that the Muslim population of Mallabar was the result of forced conversions. Likewise the idea that Tipu converted Hindus forcibly by the thousand is crude jingoistic propaganda. "It is true that he converted 20 or 30 people by force, in an exemplary way, as a kind of punishment, but not large numbers," he says.

On the whole Tipu's reputation is that of a tolerant ruler - a model for today's Indian secularists. "The many Hindu temples in Mysore were not only left in peace [by Tipu]," writes a Swedish historian called Samuel Strandberg in a new book, Tipu Sultan - The Tiger of Mysore, "but were often granted generous gifts."

"The controversy, says Mr Kesavan, "is over whether Tipu Sultan should be celebrated as an early patriot, or denounced as a Muslim bigot. Either way it is to squeeze him into a mould that is anachronistic."

India as a concept did not exist at the end of the 18th century. And although Tipu was passionate about extirpating the British, his chosen alternative was French rule. According to Samuel Strandberg, Tipu Sultan "generously offered [the French] practically the whole of India ... If Tipu's ideas had been victorious, one colonial power would have been replaced by another and the foreign national language of India today would have been French, not English."

It's an intriguing thought. It is unlikely, if Tipu had had his way, that the subcontinent would be participating so keenly (if not very successfully) in cricket's World Cup. On the other hand, the culinary results might have been stupendous. But whichever power prevailed, one suspects that India's Muslims and Hindus would still find cause to bicker.