At NASA’s Wallops Flights Facility, a rocket launch site to support the US agency’s science and exploration missions, hangs a painting of the 1780 Anglo Mysore War. It depicts a battle scene with a few rockets flying in the background. “A painting with this theme should be the most commonplace thing at a flight facility, but the painting caught my eye, because the soldiers on the side launching the rockets were not white but were dark skinned, with racial features found in South Asia. It turned out to be Tipu Sultan’s army fighting the British. The painting depicted a fact forgotten in Tipu’s own country but commemorated here on the other side of the planet,” Late Dr APJ Abdul Kalam had pointed out in his autobiography while mentioning about one of his US trips.
Hyder Ali, the 18th century ruler of Mysore, and his son and successor Tipu Sultan used the first iron-cased rockets successfully and effectively against the British East India Company during the 1780s and 1790s. Their conflicts with the company exposed the British to this technology, which was then used to advance European rocketry with the development of the Congreve rocket in 1805. Thus, it can be claimed that the Western rocket and space ship technologies actually have their roots in India and the role of Tipu Sultan cannot be ignored.
Hailing the ruler of Mysore as a hero, President Ramnath Kovind recently said, “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 the Europeans.” President Kovind’s comment on the “formidable soldier’’ from Karnataka, however, came as an embarrassment for the BJP, which alleges that Tipu Sultan was a Hindu-killing king who forced people to change their religion. The saffron party is vehemently against the Karnataka government’s plan to celebrate his birth anniversary on November 10.
BJP’s Anant Kumar Hegde, minister of state for skill development and entrepreneurship, recently described Tipu Sultan as “a brutal killer, wretched fanatic and mass rapist” and refused to attend functions related to the “Tiger of Mysore”. The Hindu right wingers apparently base their allegations against Tipu Sultan on the extensive phobic material on Tipu created by the English officials, authors, artists and cartoonists in the last two decades of the 18th century when Tipu had challenged the Britishers in military combat, which cast him as a Muslim fanatic who broke Hindu temples and forced Hindus and Christians to change their religions. This made it look only proper for the British to take over Mysore and save his subjects. It also helped overcome the image of the East India Company as corrupt and unfit for embarking on political rule in India.
The images of Tipu Sultan as cruel and bigoted, which flourished in English writings all through the 19th century, is now being highlighted by the right-wingers across the country. But it was not always the case. The Mysore ruler was considered an icon by one and all until recently. Several Kannada folk songs, known as lavanis, lamenting his death were in circulation in the 19th century, the earliest dating back to 1800, the year after he died in the battlefield. Thousands of plays on the Mysore ruler were staged across the state during the late 19th century and 20th centuries. History textbooks and popular literature, such as Amar Chitra Katha comics, were unequivocal in calling him a brave martyr.
Even the RSS had published a concise Kannada biography on Tipu Sultan in late 1970s, praising him as a patriot and heroic personality, and did not offer any negative remark on him. In late 2012, after walking out of BJP to form his own party, the Karnataka Janatha Paksha, BS Yeddyurappa had donned Tipu Sultan’s headgear and held a mock sword while praising the ruler’s virtues at a function to seek support of Muslim voters. Back in the BJP two years later, Yeddyurappa is at the forefront of BJP’s opposition to the celebration of Tipu Jayanthi in Karnataka. Thus, the present opposition of the 18th century Mysore ruler seems to be aimed more at creating political space in the south than anything else. And historical icons come in handy to grab attention of the masses.
There are not many authentic historical records that suggest that Tipu Sultan had destroyed Hindu temples conquered in war. But there is well documented evidence suggesting that he used to support religious places that fell under his kingdom. The Sharada temple at Sringeri, a seat of Shankaracharya, perhaps has the best documented association with Tipu Sultan. When the temple was looted by Maratha chieftains, the pontiff Sri Sacchidananda Bharti III sought help from Tipu Sultan. The Mysore ruler had sent funds generously for the restoration of the temple and re-consecration of the image of Sri Sharada. The temple has secured its correspondence with Tipu Sultan in its archives. It includes letters in which Tipu had requested the Swami to perform Satachandi and Sahasrachandi japa to help him gain divine blessings. Separately, the Kollur Sri Mookambika Temple in Dakshina Kannada district performs Salam Mangalarathi, a special puja in the name of the Tiger of Mysore, every day to commemorate his visit to the temple.
Srikanteshwarar temple in Nanjangud, near Mysore, has a Shiva linga made of emerald donated by Tipu Sultan. According to the temple literature, Tipu’s pet elephant, which went blind, got its vision restored after it was made to perform a ritual at the temple. Hailing the local deity as Hakim Nanjunda, Tipu Sultan had made the donation. There are several other examples of Hindu temples keeping alive fond memories of Tipu Sultan. The Editor of Mysore Gazette, Srikanataiah, has listed 156 temples to which the former Mysore ruler had regularly paid annual grants.
At times, the Mysore ruler did target Hindu and Christian communities, But, according to historian Kate Brittlebank, “this was not a religious policy but one of chastisement”. The communities he targeted were seen as disloyal to the Mysore state. Tipu had also acted against Muslim communities such as the Mahdevis, who would support the British and find employment as horsemen in the East India Company’s armies. Even as Tipu Sultan attacked Hindus and Christians from outside Mysore, the historian Susan Bayly says, he “was careful to foster close ritual and political relations with Hindus and even Christians with his own domain, provided these groups posed no threat to this authority”. Interestingly, Tipu’s right-hand man and chief minister was a Hindu. His name was Purnaiya.
The ongoing row over Tipu Sultan, Taj Mahal and Babri Masjid provide a ringside view of how modern politics uses history to create and reinforce present-day identities.