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Tipu Sultan: a secular internationalist


This month was his birth anniversary of the great Tipu Sultan (10 November 1750 - 4 May 1799). History is unkind to Tipu Sultan. The fact is that Tipu cannot be reduced to a singular narrative or tradition of intolerance or bigotry as he represented multiple traditions.

Tipu Sultan combined tolerant inter-religious traditions, liberal and secular traditions, anti-colonialism and internationalism. He could do this as he had strong roots in Sufism, which is not explored much by historians. He belonged to the Chisti/Bande Nawaz tradition of Sufism.

Tipu Sultan was radical in more than one sense. He was the first to ban consumption of alcohol in the entire State, not on religious grounds, but on moral and health grounds. He went to the extent of saying: “A total prohibition is very near to my heart.”

Tipu Sultan is credited with introducing missile or rocket technology in war.

Tipu Sultan was the first to introduce sericulture to the then Mysore state.

Tipu Sultan was the first to confiscate the property of upper castes, including Mutts, and distribute it among the Shudras. He is also credited with sowing the seeds of capitalist development at a time when the country was completely feudal.

Tipu Sultan thought about constructing a dam across the Cauvery in the present-day location of Krishnaraja Sagar.
Tipu Sultan completed the task of establishing a biodiversity garden named Lal Bagh.

Tipu Sultan's tolerance is reflected in his annual grants to no less than 156 temples, which included land deeds and jewellery.

His army was largely composed of Shudras.

When the famed Sringeri Mutt, established by Shankaracharya, was invaded by the Maratha army, Tipu Sultan issued a firman to provide financial assistance for reinstallation of the holy idol and restoring the tradition of worship at the Mutt. His donation to the famous Srikanteshwara temple at Nanjangud; the donation of 10,000 gold coins to complete temple work at Kanchi; settling the disputes between two sects of priests at z the Melkote temple; and gifts to Lakshmikanta temple at Kalale are all well-known.

Interestingly, Srirangapatna, a temple town, remained his permanent capital till the end of his rule.

Tipu Sultan was also instrumental in constructing the first-ever church in Mysuru.

Incidentally, well-known historian B.A. Saletore calls him “defender of Hindu Dharma”.

The allegation of forcible conversions has to be seen in the background of political exigencies — either they were with the colonialists such as in the case of Christians of Dakshina Kannada, or were waging a protracted guerrilla war as in the case of Coorg. Here, historians have distorted the facts by reducing political exigencies to the “communal ideology” of Tipu.

A ruler, who once identified himself with the American and French Revolution and Jacobinism, has remained an enigma to many. That a man who ruled for just 16 years continues to haunt Hindutva groups obviously means that Tipu continues to exist in the political discourses, political narratives as well as in the imagination of nation-building. This is where the irony of history lies — one cannot just bury Tipu in the annals of history.

(This article appeared in The Hindu, September 27, 2015, The writer, Muzaffar Assadi, is professor of political science at the University of Mysore.)