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Remembering Tipu

Editorial |

The spin-doctors of the Congress and to a greater degree of the Bharatiya Janata Party have denuded the discipline of history with their subjective, even uninformed, reflections on Tipu Sultan. Indeed, subjective inference is almost integral to the study of history, but the identity of the pre-eminent personality of British India has been overshadowed by the competitive anxiety to engage in hagiography or debunking.

There can be no two opinions on the fact that Tipu is, to this day, a symbol of resistance to the colonial administration. As much was underlined by President Kovind last week. There ought to be no quarrel with the decision of the ruling Congress in Karnataka to celebrate his birth anniversary on 10 November as “Tipu Jayanti”. At the helm of the Opposition, the BJP is vehemently opposed to the celebrations. In life he had personified the struggle against the British in late medieval India; 70 years after Independence, he is at the centre of a putrid discourse within the political class.

As judgment based on empirical evidence lies rather thin on the ground, opinion is radically divided between two assessments ~ a freedom-fighter to the Congress and a “religious bigot and brutal killer” to the saffronites. Both parties are guilty of detoxification of history, when in power; this time around, both are engaged in assessing a personality… in their respective ways. In the midst of this cacophony, quite the most dispassionate assessment has been advanced by Irfan Habib, the distinguished historian of the Aligarh school.

He has put the Congress on alert with the contention that it would be less than accurate to refer to Tipu as a “freedom-fighter” primarily because “he did not revolt against anyone, but had defended his kingdom of Mysore by resisting colonialism”. With a resounding message to the BJP, he is firm on the point that “if Indians want to celebrate the anti-colonial struggle, then they must celebrate Tipu Sultan”. That robust assertion by one of India’s front-ranking historians ~ distinguished for his works on Tipu and for his analysis of the Mughal agrarian system ~ ought to end the intrinsically political controversy over an outstanding figure of history.

Those engaged in the kerfuffle may not even be familiar with the personalities, problems and policies of British India. Tipu Sultan deserved better than this shadowboxing. As Prof Habib has reminded the saffronites, the “attack on Tipu’s character ~ mass rapist, brutal killer” et al ~ was not even made by the British. Sad to reflect, the positive side of the man has been glossed over in the anxiety to forestall the Congress celebrations.

Chiefly, he had put in place a suitably equipped modern army and accorded priority to economic development. A proper assessment of the man and his times is imperative on his birth anniversary. Clio ought not to be relegated to the footnotes amidst the Congress grandstanding and the BJP’s denunciation.