The Karnataka government’s decision to observe the birth anniversary of Tipu Sultan on 10 November this year triggered a serious controversy. Anant Kumar Hegde, a Minister of state of the Union government and a BJP leader as well, stirred the controversy when he wrote on twitter on 20 October, “I have conveyed to Karnataka government not to invite me to shameful event of glorifying a person known as brutal killer, wretched fanatic and mass rapist”.

But a few days later, the Hon’ble President Ramnath Kovind visited Karnataka and brought himself to the centre of an ongoing controversy over the 18th century ruler’s legacy. On the occasion of Vidhan Soudha’s diamond jubilee celebrations in Bengaluru, Kovind said on 25 October, “Tipu Sultan died a heroic death fighting the British.

He was also a pioneer in the development and use of Mysore rockets in warfare. This technology was later adopted by Europeans”. The President’s evaluation of Tipu Sultan has poured cold water on the enthusiasm of some members of the Sangh Parivar. Another Union Minister, Sadanand Gowda, without refuting the views expressed by the President, demanded a public debate on the issue, before the official celebration of Tipu’s birth anniversary.

Two years ago, violence erupted at Medikeri in Coorg district of Karnataka on 10 November in the wake of Tipu Jayanti celebration by the Karnataka government. Several Sangh Parivar outfits described the 18th century Mysuru ruler Tipu Sultan as a tyrant and tormentor of the Hindus. Their protest was against the official celebration of the birth anniversary of the “bigot”.

Unfortunately, after 218 years of his death, Tipu was brought to the surface of communal politics. This essay does not make any attempt to judge whether a government sponsored programme for observing the birth anniversary of Tipu Sultan was uncalled for, nor does it deny anybody’s right to protest. This essay only denounces politicians’ intrusion into historians’ territory and tries to locate Tipu’s proper place in history. Even a Hindutva activist cannot deny that Tipu offered heroic resistance against British imperialism, in the fourth Anglo-Mysore war.

Tipu died the death of a hero in May 1799, while defending his capital Srirangapatam, which was, however, plundered by the English troops. With the demise of Tipu Sultan, observed Kalikinkar Datta, a prominent nationalist historian, “…fell a leading Indian power and one of the most inveterate and dreadful foes of the English”. He had to fight against the collective effort of the English East India Company as well as the government of Great Britain.

Tipu faced defeat after offering a gallant fight to the English, who were endowed with better military technique and superior equipment. His defeat was inevitable. Considering his time, Tipu tried to develop an efficient administrative system. According to a British historian, Tipu appeared to be “the first Indian sovereign to seek to apply western methods to his administration”. He divided his central administration into seven departments, among which Mir Asaf Kutchery (Revenue Department) and Malik ul Tujjar Kutchery ( Trade and Commerce Department) were very important.

Tipu’s biographer, Mahibul Hasan, aptly remarks, “Few Indian rulers in the past were so much interested in the promotion of trade and industry as was Tipu Sultan”. Silkworms were imported from Bengal and Muscate with a view to promote silk industry. Sugarcane cultivation was encouraged to develop a sugar industry in Mysore.

During the reign of Tipu Sultan, some sort of state owned banking system flourished in Mysore to curb the influence of money lenders and Sohukors. It would be somehow ahistorical to call Tipu Sultan a religious fanatic and tormentor of the Hindus. It has been alleged that he had confiscated the rent free inam lands held by the Brahmins.

But Tipu, on the basis of the findings of the Revenue Commission, had confiscated only the unauthorised rent free holdings held by Brahmins and fakirs. In 1916, Rao Bahadur K Narasimhachar, then the Director of Archaeology in Mysore, had discovered a bunch of letters in the temple of Sringeri. These letters were written by Tipu to the chief priest of the temple. The letters reveal that the temple held a large area of rent free land during the reign of Tipu Sultan.

Taking advantage of the Maratha invasion of Mysore, the Pindaris displaced the sacred image of the Goddess Sarada of Sringeri temple. Tipu immediately sanctioned financial assistance from the state treasury (tosakhana) for the consecration of Goddess Sarada. Prof Srikanthia, the editor of the Mysore gazette, informs that about 156 temples received annual grant during the reign of Tipu Sultan. Tipu considered conversion from Hinduism to Islam as a punishment to those who revolted against the state.

His apprehension was responsible for large scale conversion of non-Muslim subjects of Coorg and Malabar when they revolted against the Sultan. In one of his letters, he admitted that he converted Nairs to Islam “as a punishment to their rebellion”, and they deserved the punishment because “they rebelled six times and six times I forgave them”.

However, in the context of present day ethical standards, this act of Tipu cannot be accepted. In spire of revolt by the Hindus of Malabar, he did not confiscate the rent free holdings directly under the temple or held by the Brahmins. A number of Hindus held high posts in the army administration during his reign. Tipu’s subjugation of the Christian subjects as well emerged out of political considerations.

During the Second Anglo-Mysore War, the Kanadi Christians helped the English in many ways, primarily by supplying information. Retaliation against them became imperative. According to CA Bayly, the noted historian, Tipu carefully distinguished “between Hindus and Christians who might be the stalking horse of British influence and the majority of his non-Muslim subjects whom he treated with consideration”.

He definitely gave stress upon the Islamic features of his state, but his dependence on Hindu warriors and Tamil administrators forced him to proceed with caution. Tipu Sultan was a clever diplomat as well. He sought the help of the French to resist the English. To appease the French and secure their military assistance, Tipu became a member of the Jacobin Club established by the French and planted the “tree of liberty” in Mysore.

He was not a modern man in outlook, but he definitely took certain significant steps to rejuvenate the economy of Mysore. He knew that tapping of new economic resources was necessary for the survival of a warrior state threatened by enemies on all aides. Tipu Sultan definitely appears to be one of the most colourful characters among 18th century Indian rulers.

(The writer is Associate Professor, Vivekananda College, Kolkata)