Contextualising the enigma of Tipu Sultan is a difficult task. His 16-year-rule has been at the heart of folklore, history and numerous political and ideological clashes, even 200 years after his death. The debate has swung from Tipu being a egalitarian who fought the British till his last breath to that of a religious bigot.
The new book Tiger: The Life of Tipu Sultan by Australian historian Kate Brittlebank gains significance as it comes against the backdrop of a vitriolic campaign and subsequent violence by Hindu right-wing groups over the Karnataka government’s move last year to celebrate the bicentenary of Tipu’s reign. Jnanpith awardee Girish Karnad was forced to apologise over his suggestion to rename Bengaluru airport at Devanahalli after Tipu Sultan, where he was born.
Brittlebank tries to understand Tipu in the context of the times he lived in. Not taking sides, the historian gives readers a peek into the life, times, challenges and personal tragedies in his life. The book points out that it was the British who sowed the seeds of communal hatred, labelling Tipu as a Muslim ruler. Even the Wodeyars, who were deposed by Hyder, never called him a “Mahomedan usurper”.
“The hostile rhetoric of the British drew upon imagery with deep roots in Europe. As a result of the old animosity between Christendom and Islam, which had begun with the Crusades, the emphasis on Haidar and Tipu as ‘Mahomedans’ would have resonated strongly with their non-Indian audience”, says the book.
Brittlebank also noted that currently, Hindu right-wingers are judiciously following the British to demonise Tipu as a Muslim ruler over a predominantly Hindu population.
According to her, the British animosity towards Tipu can be explained by the fact that they were more threatened by his militaristic wizardry than him being a Muslim.
It was during the battles with Tipu’s forces that the East India Company got a taste of rocket warfare – technology thast Tipu got from France even while the British were experimenting with it back home.
The author, who spent 25 years researching on Tipu, also debunks the claims of Tipu being an outsider. “Haidar and Tipu’s rule was not a historical aberration – it was typical of the regional powers that arose during the eighteenth century. Furthermore, both Tipu and his father can be described as sons of the soil. He was the third generation of his family to be born south of the Vindhyas”, says the book.
Brittlebank counters the claims of Tipu being a zealot by citing documented evidence from the archives about his largess for the Sringeri Math. “An idea of the number of Tipu’s religious endowments across his realm can be gained by looking at the registers held in the Kozhikode Archives in Kerala.
The records show that Tipu authorised sixty seven grants of rent-free land, primarily to temples and mosques, solely for the taluks of Calicut, Ernad, Bettathnad and Chowghat. If we extrapolate that figure across the entire realm, it is clear that his patronage of such institutions was extensive,” says the book.
But as real politick goes, documented evidence also exists about Tippu demolishing temples and churches in the region. For instance, the Varaha temple, a symbol of the Wodeyars, was rased to the ground.
However, when it came to governance and the political machinery, Tipu did not discriminate against particular religious groups on the basis of their faith. His diwan or chief minister, Purnaiya, was a Hindu.
The book suggests that what could have been his animosity with Christians in Kerala was that they were aligned with the British. The book also accounts for his atrocities towards the Nairs and the Kodavas. But these are facts of history that cannot be wished away, just as some of Tipu’s progressive measures are praiseworthy.
The book also throws light on Tipu’s social and economic reforms. Tipu was the first to confiscate the property of the upper castes, including Mutts, and distribute it among untouchables. His reforms crushed the prevalent feudal system. He banned the consumption of alcohol, not on religious grounds, but on moral and health grounds.
Another crucial bit of information that Brittlebank presents is Tipu’s treatment of women. Tipu’s zenana or harem held 601 women in 1799.
Among the residents was Tipu’s brother Abdul Karim’s wife. The sultan had placed his sister-in-law in the harem to save her from an abusive and cruel brother. However, his crackdown on the practice of polyandry among Nair women and their custom of not wearing an upper garment could be attributed to the influence of rigid Islamic rules.