TIPU Sultan

The celebration of Tipu Jayanti is problematic, but not for the reasons that are being expressed by its loudest opponents.

November 10, the day on which the government of Karnataka observed Tipu Jayanti, was an emotionally charged one with far-reaching ramifications.

The BJP and its affiliates in the Sangh Parivar as well as historians like M Chidananda Murthy who share their views, have called Tipu “anti-national” and “anti-Hindu” besides accusing him of carrying out forcible conversions of Hindus and Christians to Islam.

Many other historians have said that Tipu and other figures of the past cannot be identified with certain modern-day tags such as communal and national.

But while Tipu, like any other historical figure, is a tough nut to crack, the Congress party’s actions are not difficult to decipher.

Reducing Tipu to a Muslim

Leaders of the Congress party and also the state government have maintained that Tipu was a “freedom fighter” who fought against the British. Yet, the task of organizing Tipu Jayanti was assigned to the department of minorities welfare, which also released a booklet detailing both central and state welfare schemes for minorities.

Calling the organization of the whole affair “irresponsible”, state president of the Democratic Youth Federation of India Muneer Katipalla said that the government should have started preparations a year ago.

“During the last 20 years, and especially in the last five years, the Sangh Parivar has maligned Tipu whenever someone spoke well of him. Everybody knew that they would protest the government’s decision. If it wanted to honour Tipu’s (contribution to the freedom struggle), the Congress should have prepared its own party first. They should have created an atmosphere conducive to this,” Katipalla said.

The party should have been able to take the message to the people, organize public debates and discussions on Tipu’s legacy, he said.

Understanding Tipu

Senior writer SG Siddaramaiah says that the government’s decision to delegate the task of the celebration was an attitude that was displayed by all governments.

“Who celebrates Ambedkar Jayanti? The backward classes department. All governments have made the mistake of reducing the socio-cultural and political icons of the Indian sub-continent as belonging to one community or another,” Siddaramaiah said.

He said that today, poet Kanakadasa was celebrated by the Kurubas, founder of the Lingayat order Basaveshwara by the Veerashaivas, Valmiki by the Naikas, and Tipu Sultan by the Muslims.

Quoting a line from Kuvempu’s poem “Jai Bharata Jananiya Tanujathe” which is also the state anthem, Siddaramaiah said, “To truly have the sarva janangada shantiya thota (the garden where all communities live peacefully), all of us need to accept all our cultural icons.”

However, he felt that the government did not do anything wrong in celebrating Tipu Jayanti. Pointing out that the government already celebrated Valmiki Jayanti and Kanaka Jayanti, Siddaramaiah said, “It is an idea whose time has come. Tipu should also be accepted. Ours is a land of many cultures and communities and each produces its own social and cultural leaders. We celebrate Kittur Rani Chennamma and Sangolli Rayanna. Tipu too fought against the British.” 

Siddaramaiah said that Tipu was today considered a controversial figure, for two primary reasons. One was that only certain aspects of his life received disproportionate attention.

“Folk cultures have a way of remembering leaders who were good to the people. There are so many lavanis in north Karnataka and Mysuru region which recall Tipu fondly. Why is this history ignored?”

The second reason, Siddaramaiah said, was that the approach to history was often flawed, causing “a lot of damage to the well-being of our society”.

“Tipu was a political figure who was opposed to the British and destruction was unleashed on any community aligned with the British. We have to look at historical (events processes and people) in the contexts of their own political pressures,” Siddaramaiah said. 

Illustrating with an example, he said that in the 12th century, the followers of Bhakti poet Basava were persecuted by those who believed in the Vedic system of worship. Also, there has been philosophical and physical violence on these matters from time to time. In the first millennium, the Vedic system came under attack from Jains, and the Jains from the Veerashaivas, he added. “How do we understand this today?”

Addressing the violence that Tipu has been accused of, Siddaramaiah added, “The violence inflicted on the people of Kodagu has to be understood in this context. Our people became victims of Tipu’s tactics of warfare. Often, our own people were aligned with the British, and when this happened, kings (opposed to the British) have unleashed violence on such groups,” Siddaramaiah said.

The question of what sort of a moral position to take on such figures, could perhaps be answered by British historian Eric Hobsbawm’s views on the purpose of history-writing, and by Ramachandra Guha’s views on the government’s move.

In the first chapter of his groundbreaking work “A People’s History of the United States”, Hobsbawm says,

“My point is not to grieve for the victims and denounce the executioners. Those tears, that anger, cast into the past, deplete our moral energy for the present. And the lines are not always clear. In the long run, the oppressor is also a victim. In the short run (and so far, human history has consisted only of short runs), the victims, themselves desperate and tainted with the culture that oppresses them, turn on other victims.”

In Guha’s view, the government had no business celebrating the birthday of a king. He said that the state government should have instead, celebrated the birth anniversary of a poet. He said in an interview to India Today, “Tipu Sultan was an 18th century ruler. In the 18th century, there was no India, there was no Karnataka. That's one reason why the government of Karnataka should not have organised a formal official celebration of Tipu Sultan's birthday.”

The consequences

Katipalla feels that the manner in which the state government went about Tipu Jayanti has dangerous consequences. “There, Congress took it upon itself to organize Tipu Jayanti. There was no pressure to do so. For the first time that day, I saw Tipu Sultan with a beard. Until then, we generally saw Tipu fighting with a tiger. Hindu fundamentalists call him anti-Hindu, and the Muslim fundamentalists, PFI and other groups are making him an Islamic icon. Because the Congress did it haphazardly, the only thing Tipu Jayanti has done, is to benefit fundamentalists on both sides.”