Monday, August 15th, 2022 05:56:18

Was Tipu Sultan a patriot or a religious bigot?

By Dr Uddipan Mukherjee
Updated: November 1, 2021 5:14 pm

In the month of November, some two hundred and seventy years ago in today’s Bengaluru rural district at Devanhalli, was born a son to Haidar Ali and his second wife Fakhr-un-Nissa. The child was named ‘Tipu’ in deference to saint TipuMastanAulia whose tomb in Arcot was visited by his parents, praying for the safe delivery of the child. Tipu Sultan was also called Fath Ali after his grandfatherFath Muhammad. Interestingly, Calcutta University’s Professor Mohibbul Hasan states that author Kirmani in his book Karnama-i-Haidari asserts that he has been unable to decode the meaning of the word ‘Tipu’.

Almost five decades later, on a rather hot afternoon on 4th May when Tipu was having lunch, he received the information that the English troops had breached the walls of the fort of Seringapatnam, near the city of Mysore. He left his lunch midway and went to confront the East India Company [EIC] soldiers led by David Baird.The year in particular was 1799.

Tipu died fighting near the water gate of the fort. His corpse had to be pulled out of the heap of dead bodies. One of his courtiers, Raja Khan, writes William Dalrymple in The Anarchy (p 350), aided David Baird to ultimately identify the body of the sultan in the darkness.

Born in 1750, Tipu Sultan had succeeded to his father’s usurped throne of Mysore on 29 December 1782, informs historian Irfan Habib. Tipu was immediately embedded in the struggle against the English EIC, continuing the second Anglo-Mysore war that had begun under his father in 1780. Though this war drew to a close by the Treaty of Mangalore in March 1784 in which mutual restitution of territories took place, a war with the Marathas and the Nizam soon followed during 1785-1787.

Tipu was quite assertive and contemplated grandiose plans, perhaps much beyond what his territory could offer him in terms of revenues. Tipu dropped the name and title of the Mughal emperor from his coins, and, according to historian Wilks, began using the title Padshah for himself from January 1786 onward. With the assumption of this title, Tipu could claim parity with the sovereign Sultan of Turkey and that of the King of France, both of whom personally received Tipu’s ambassadors in 1787 and 1788 respectively, writes Habib. In the instructions that Tipu penned for his envoys to Constantinople, he painted a picture of how the English had become a grave danger due to their conquests and acquisitions. Tipu directed his embassy that the Ottoman sultan was to be told how the English have acquired the country of Bengal, with revenues of twenty crores of rupees, and the Carnatic (south-eastern coast of Indian peninsula), with revenues of three crores of rupees, informs Irfan Habib.



Religion and Tipu

Different historians, authors and chroniclers have evaluated Tipu through different prisms. He has been painted as a moderniser, progressive ruler of his times, even as an intellectual and to some extreme as a patriot. He has also been asserted to be a despot engaged in communal frenzy. However, one question is relevant for Tipu. For example, Dodwell assigns Tipu the credit of being the first Indian sovereign to have applied western methods and principles in his administration and warfare. Moreover, centralisation was an important aspect that he implemented.

Like, Tipu abolished the office of the Wazir or Prime Minister and each of the seven principal departments were placed under a Mir Asif who were directly responsible to the sultan. Mexico-based Professor of History, Ishita Banerjee-Dube mentions that Tipu accorded preference to hereditary ownership of land tenures and fixed the land rent. He nonetheless collected the land revenue in cash. On an average, the cultivator paid 40 per cent of his income to the state. Cash crops like pepper, cardamom, tobacco and sandalwood were grown.

However, a germane question that comes up quite often is to what extent was religion important to Tipu Sultan?

Habib writes that one can understand in the case of Tipu, as in that of the rebels of the Uprising of 1857, ‘why religion should be appealed to for strength and ardour against an alien foe’.Tipu’s formal name for his government, Sarkar-iKhudadad (God-given government), implied that his was no ordinary government, but proclaimed to be the one with a divine-commanded mission. The religious orientation of Tipu’sgovernment was adumbrated by the orders to appoint a qazi, especially for imparting instruction of Islam to Muslim children. Islam was ‘one great ideological prop for his power’, asserts Irfan Habib.

It is also a fact that Tipu crushed the Hindus of Coorg and the Nairs, writes B. L. Grover and S. Grover. The most critical analysis of Tipu’s character, however, has of late come from Sandeep Balakrishna as he details Tipu’s 1788 march into Coorg. Balakrishna refers to Tipu’s courtier-cum-biographer Mir Hussein Kirmani to state that Tipu had burnt down villages in his Coorg campaign. Tipu in a letter to the Nawab of Kurnool had described how he converted 40,000 people of Coorg into Islam. Balakrishna also writes that to ‘Islamise Coorg, Tipu transferred about 7,000 Muslim families there’. Furthermore, Balakrishna quotes Tipu himself as he wrote to his officer Budruz Zaman Khan:

“With the grace of Prophet Mohammad and Allah, almost all Hindus in Calicut are converted to Islam…..I consider this as Jihad…”

Interestingly, Balakrishna mentions William Logan’s Malabar Manual which posits a detailed list of all the temples Tipu had destroyed in the Kerala country.

In fact, Tipu had enforced Farsi as the administrative language of the state, changed the names of several cities to Muslim ones and also changed the weights and measures according to the tenets of Islam. Balakrishna further writes that Tipu removed Hindus from all administrative posts except of course, Purnaiya, who enjoyed important post under Haidar too. It may always be argued that Tipu tenaciously clung to Islam so as to garner the loyalty of his Muslim officials and troops.

But what is more likely is the fact that by invoking Islam, Tipu was trying to appeal to the ‘holy-war’ (ghazwa) spirit of his followers. When in 1783 he directed the compilation, through ZainulAbidinShustari, of a manual of military organization and tactics, he titled it Fat’hul Mujahidin, that is, the victory of Holy Warriors.This Holy War or jihad was to be directed against the English, opines Professor Habib.

Nonetheless, Habib says that Tipu’s actions of punishing rebels in Coorg and Malabar by forced conversions cannot be condoned by any apologies. They nonetheless became the basis for allegations against him of persecuting and destroying or closing Hindu temples. Buchanan accuses Tipuof having ‘wantonly destroyed their [the Hindus’] temples’, and Wilks alleges that Tipu ‘oppressed and insulted his Hindu subjects’.

Yet, Tipu, like Haidar, continued with Hindus in government employment, writes Habib, disagreeing withBalakrishna. One of his major ministers was Purnaiya: but there were a number of other high and trusted Hindu officers, opines Habib. In fact, in 1800, Buchanan, in his critique of Tipu, says that brahamans remained in control of Tipu Sultan’s revenue department. Tipu in his letters and orders notes the appointments of Marathi and Kannada (Kanhari) clerks in the treasury and of ‘hindawi’ clerks in other offices.

One of Tipu’s orders relates to the assembling of his brahman officers at Srirangapatnam(or Seringapatnam) in 1792-93 where Tipu announced that he would forgive all faults of this servants. The brahmanas, having had a ritual bath, took an oath of loyalty to him. Another order of the sultan, issued around this time, decrees that all land grants to brahmanas conferred by the old authorities (apparently of the Wodeyar kingdom of Mysore) were to be deemed confirmed.

NarasinghaSil of USA’s Western Oregon University writes that Haidar Ali and Tipu Sultan hailed from a migrant Arab tribe – the Quraish. This claim is duly confirmed by Professor Hasan. Sil further mentions that Tipu demolished ‘at least three Hindu temples – Harihareswara temple at Harihar, Varahaswami temple at Srirangapatnam and the Odakaraya temple at Hospet’. Further, Silwhile citing another scholar on Tipu, Brittlebank, says that in the ‘Tamil land and in Malabar, Tipu had earned the epithet of Brahman-killer and a destroyer of temples’.

Interestingly, Tipu was a firm believer in astrology and on the morning of the fateful day of the final siege of the fort of Seringapatnam on 04 May 1799, he had enquired from the Brahman astrologers regarding any foreboding which they could visualise. Even after the astrologers warned the Sultan of bad omens, Tipu gifted them ‘three elephants, two buffaloes, a bullock and a she-goat’ (Dalrymple, The Anarchy, p 349). Perhaps in that backdrop, Major Dirom in 1794 told that Tipu Sultan’s cruelties were in general, inflicted only on those whom he considered his enemies (Sil, p 4). However, that of course does not exonerate him of his truculence or at least as Dalrymple opines, as ‘unnecessary violence against his adversaries’ and the vanquished like ‘cutting off arms, legs, ears, noses, before being hanged; and by routinely circumcising and converting to Islam his enemies, both Hindus and Christians, Indian and British’.

Tipu in fact tied naked Christians and Hindus to the legs of elephants and made the elephants move around till the bodies of the victims were torn apart (Dalrymple, The Anarchy, p 321). However, quite to the contrary, the 1916 discovery of Tipu’s letters to the Sringeri math shed fresh light on the layered complexities involved in the manifestation of religion in Tipu’s character. These letters were analysed by historian Surendranath Sen in 1930. According to the analysis, in 1793, Tipu tells the Swami of the Sringeri math:

“You are the Jagadguru, Preceptor of the World… In whatever country holy personages like you may reside, that country will prosper with good showers and crops.”

In a paper presented at the Indian History Congress session at Madras in 1944, A. SubbarayaChettey gave an impressive list of Tipu’s grants and other favours to temples, derived from a number of sources. Irfan Habib argues that both the Sringeri math letters and other grants by Tipushow that his ardent faith in a militant Islam had a context rather than perhaps any planned confrontation with Hinduism as such. Habib’s interpretation is that Tipuinvoked militant Islam mainly to charge up his troops to take on the EIC forces.

In the record of his dreams or KhwabNamah, Tiputells of one dream of 16 November 1798 in which he saw a big damaged temple. Inside it were many idols whose eyes moved. One of the two female idols told him they had all been praying to God. In the dream, Tipu ordered his men to repair the building. Though Habib claims that this dream indicated Tipu’s attitude of benevolent tolerance, yet it may be far-fetched to interpret Tipu’s dream to the extent of mapping his character.

Tipu, the Moderniser

In 1787, Tipu instructed his prospective ambassadors to France to tell the French king that he had in Mysore ‘ten workshops (karkhanas) where countless muskets (banduqs) were being manufactured. These muskets were modelled after those of the guns manufactured in contemporary Europe. Cossigny, the governor of Pondicherry at that time, while examining one musket produced by Tipu Sultan’s workers’ in 1786, thought it to be equal in standard to any musket produced in Europe. This was also the judgement in Paris regarding two pistols presented by Tipu’s ambassadors to Louis XVI in 1788.

Tipu’s ambassadors to the Ottoman court (1785-86) were asked to exhibit to the Turks the muskets carried by the men, that had been made in Mysore. But Tipu wanted further improvement on his muskets, and he asked his ambassadors to Paris to request the French monarch to send him ‘other craftsmen who could make muskets of novel designs, cannon-pieces, and iron guns to all of whom he would pay suitable wages’, writes Habib. A founder, with four master craftsmen, were actually brought from France. Buchanan refers to a machine installed at Srirangapatnam by ‘a French artist’ to bore cannon, which was to be driven by water power.

Tipu’s major interest was, however, in building ships, which could be used for trade, as well as in naval warfare. Tipu’sships already used to sail to Musqat (Oman), where a factory (kothi or trading house) of his government (sarkar) had been established before 1785. As KavehYazdani says that though Haidar’s Army was modernising, yet it was an army in transition. Nevertheless, a disciplined infantry and artillery were gaining currency. Tipu’s troops on the other hand, had uniforms, an officer corps, insignia, training manuals – things which made them comparable to any contemporary European army, asserts Yazdani. Since Tipu abolished the jagir system, he could amass a decent standing army which took on the adversary.

Tipu in fact aimed at the expansion of iron and steel manufacture. However, Yazdani tells us that the Sultanate of Mysore under Haidar and Tipu ‘pursued a kind of centralised economic development programme which was based on coercion and force’. One French professional working under Tipu complained that he regrets leaving his home in Europe so as to serve a ‘despot who merely follows his own will or that of his minister Mir Sadiq’. The Frenchman further tells that ‘Tipu nearly always had the French experts confined in the workshops and kept them under strict surveillance’.

Nonetheless, in Seringapatnam, up to 10 muskets were manufactured per day, writes Yazdani. In this context, and also as an endorsement ofTipu’s confidence level in the quality of muskets his ordnance factories were manufacturing at that point in time, he returned 500 French muskets in late 1787, says Yazdani, since he was dissatisfied with the quality of the guns.


Who was Tipu?

Narasingha Sil quotes S. Chandra-shekhar’s 1999 article in the Deccan Herald that ‘any attempt to analyse historical characters like Tipu is fraught with subjectivity……To treat him as a freedom fighter as we understand freedom today is like describing all those who fought against invaders as freedom fighters and the list could be endless…’

In this context, it is pertinent to note what Tipu’s biographer Professor Mohibbul Hasan writes:

“Actually he fought in order to preserve his own power and independence. It will be too much to say that Tipu waged war against the English for the sake of India’s freedom”.

Indubitably, Tipu was most concerned to expand the territories of his Sultanate/kingdom of Mysore. In that regard, his most virulent enemy were the English. Naturally, he sought the aid of the French – which was both a pragmatic step as well as a policy of realpolitik. In a sense his father Haidar Ali was much shrewder and diplomatic since he could rope in the Triple Alliance with the Nizam and the Marathas, which Tipu failed to coalesce – something which led to his undoing in the Fourth Anglo-Mysore War of 1799. Tipu took on too much and too many single-handedly. He was surely a monarch who possessed modern outlook, a man who thought ahead of his times. But his efforts to employ Europeans, mostly French, to train his armed forces was not a pioneering activity. It was started by the commander of Arcot Yusuf Khan (1725-1761), and later on by Tipu’s father Haidar Ali, who in turn was encouraged  by his elder brother Shahbaz. Even Tipu’s contemporary, the Maratha sardarMahadajiScindia had done the same – modernised his military with the aid of European mercenaries and experts.

And even if Tipu’s plans of expanding his navy to take on the EIC was a bit too late in the day since by then he had lost half of his kingdom in the third Anglo-Mysore War and moreover was reeling under the pressure of heavy indemnities, yet it was not his brainchild. His father Haidar had already embarked on preparing a navy, armed with mostly gallivats. And not to mention of Shivaji who had encouraged naval formations in the 17th century, much before both Haidar and Tipu.

It is true that Tipu’s forces had developed the rocket technology so as to enhance their ranges up to even 2.4 km. Yazdani affirms that it was because of these rockets that the EIC lost the battle of Pollilur in 1780. Nevertheless, though the English learnt the cutting edge of rocket technology from their wars against the state of Mysore and later developed them as Congreve rockets, yet it was not just Tipu who could be attributed to be the trailblazer in this trade. In 1781, Colonel Muir reported that ‘the Marathas attacked his troops with forty to fifty rockets’, writes Yazdani. Moreover, rockets (or bans) were being used in the sub-continent in warfare since the end of the thirteenth century.

Intriguingly, some historians have alleged that too much reliance on western technology led to the ultimate debacle of Tipu. He focused more on infantry and artillery and over time, pruned his cavalry – the most important arm of Indian warfare technique at that temporal juncture. Also, unlike his father, he gradually did away with the hit-and-run tactic and concentrated on defensive siege warfare methods to take on the EIC. In this manner, he played to the strengths of his enemy. Though his forts were built as per best European standards of the time, yet continued attacks on the forts ultimately created the little breach that his enemy was looking for.

It goes down in the annals of history what Tipu and Napoleon exchanged letters. It was simply great of Tipu to think that Napoleon would come down to the sub-continent from Egypt, and he would push the EIC from Mysore and in the process, the EIC would be compressed and finally be annihilated. And if this was still not utopian, Tipu’s letter to Zaman ShahDurrani to come over and partition India, whose grandfather Ahmad Shah Abdalihad devastated north India in the mid-18th century; clearly shows his desperation to take on the English and of course clarifies any doubt whatsoever that Tipu was never fighting for ‘India’ or Hindustan, rather trying to preserve his expanded state of Mysore.


By Dr Uddipan Mukherjee

(The writer is PhD, and  is in India’s Central Civil  Service. Any opinion  expressed here is of  author’s own.)

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