History writing, especially about the medieval Muslim rule has been fraught with political correctness, controversy, and in several cases, downright falsification. This has occurred mostly with official state patronage. As a result, any attempts to correct this course has been virulently opposed with the result that most urban-educated Indians have now internalized a politically correct version of Indian history.
The history of Tipu Sultan too, stands as a glaring instance of this distorted historical narrative. Indeed, we have seen, read, and heard about a lot of people claiming to be freedom fighters and receiving pensions from the Government. Several of these worthies would not have been born before Independence yet they succeed in such blatant manipulations. Tipu Sultan is widely known as the Tiger of Mysore. Indeed, the image of Tipu battling a tiger barehanded crosses the mind whenever his name is mentioned. But is this the truth? Was Tipu Sultan truly the freedom fighter as he has been portrayed? What exactly is his record of fighting the British? Was he really a freedom fighter as is widely claimed? This lecture answers these questions and exposes numerous other such myths.
Tipu Sultan: The Whitewashing Of A Tyranny in South India – Sandeep Balakrishna – Tipu Jayanti
Tipu Sultan was a junior contemporary of the last powerful Mughal emperor, Aurangzeb. What Aurangzeb did in a span of 50 years throughout most of India, Tipu did the same thing in just 4 states, in a span of about 17 years, in South India. The barbarian Tipu Sultan tied naked Christians and Hindus to the legs of elephants, and made the elephants move around till the bodies of the helpless victims were torn to pieces. We have Tipu’s own words, “With the grace of Prophet Muhammad and Allah, almost all Hindus in Calicut are converted to Islam. Only on the borders of Cochin state, a few Hindus are still not converted. I am greatly determined to convert them very soon. I consider this as Jihad to achieve that objective.”
Hello and welcome and at the outset let me say that it’s a really great pleasure and a delight to address this august gathering. Lot of respected elders from whom I’ve learnt, like Dr Elst & Sangrinu Mukherjee, other people like Dr. Shankar Sharan, they’re all in the audience. It’s a matter of great honour for me, and I would also like to express my gratitude to Srijan Foundation, Rahul Dewan and his brilliant team for extending this warm welcome to me.
So after the intro, I’ll get straight to the point. So because the topic of my address relates to history, we can begin with some main concepts. I promise not to take long time on this and kind of bore you.
So quickly, this relates to the manner in which we regard history itself, as an academic discipline, as a way of understanding the world and more importantly as a way of understanding ourselves. So much of the way in which we are taught history and how we regard history, comes from our formal education, needless to say, from our school and college. But this education does not teach us how our ancestors, how our forefathers, regarded history. Or what, loosely speaking, or what is the native conception of history. Or what is the rooted Indian conception of history. This none of our schools and our so called education teaches us.
So as all of you know, the Indian word for history is “itihasa”, which can be split into 3 parts. Iti + ha + asa, which literally means “it happened thus”. So, I’ll illustrate this with a couple of examples. In our tradition, Ramayana, Mahabharata, and sometimes even the Puranas are collectively known as itihasa. So in North India, all of you are familiar, that its very common that you take it for granted to hear terms like Ramkatha, Ramayankatha, Bharatkatha and variations thereof. So here we need to focus on the word katha, which stands subconsciously, nobody needs to teach this to us. We know it subconsciously, that the word katha, while it stands for story, its implied meaning is actually itihasa. Which can loosely be understood as history, but we will look at that in some detail later.
The other important way to understand the word itihasa is that in our tradition itihasa is recited. It is recited as points, it is recited as, it is set to tune, it is sung as songs. Which is completely distinct from merely being read, in the form of a book or whatever narrative.
So, for example, at least I’m from South India, from Karnataka. So we celebrate Sita Kalyana, which is, Sita Ram ka shaadi, and we also celebrate Parvati Kalyana, which is Parvati’s marriage with Shiva and all kinds of, you know folklore which revolves around stories from our Puranas, from Ramayana and Mahabharata. Stories, Kathas, Upkhatas, Episodes, Sub-Episodes from our, what is known as itihasa. But how are these things done?
Ramkatha, Sita-Ram Kalyana, how are these done? They are celebrated as festivals. They are celebrated as festivals in our temples, in various mathas, on different actual festivals like Navratri, you name it. So this conception of history, what does it symbolize? It symbolizes a living tradition and most importantly, it symbolizes a long line of civilizational and cultural continuity. This does not come by just memorizing some facts, like you know Rama was born on such and such day and he did this and he did that and he fought this war at some random time in history. It is not just some memorization of events and dates.,
One can also compare this, contrast this, with say from example the Greek epics. Iliad, Odyssey. All these stories, these epics in the west, they came from the west, what is their fate now? What is their condition today? They are not celebrated; it is not a living tradition. It was completely cut off. So Iliad, Odyssey, all these things are just studied in universities and schools and colleges only out of academic interest. It is no longer a living tradition. So when you contrast this, you will understand the full significance, when I say you know what I mean by itihasa.
So, long story, in our tradition, history or itihasa, is not merely a collection of facts, it is a value. Now, a man is thirsty and there is water. So for example, this gentleman is thirsty and there is some water there, I fetch water and give it to him, and he quenches his thirst with that action. That journey between thirst, between being thirty and actually fulfilling it is the meaning of the word value.
So then we come to stuff like bowls of history, and I will give a disclaimer saying that, you know, whatever I said so far does not mean that I reject a, you know, study of history as a scientific study of our past. Whichever country it may be.
So a honest history from that perspective must lead to 2 things. First, it is a truthful understanding of our past. And second, is to imbibe within ourselves the courage to face the truth of the past, to digest past mistakes and learn from them. This is because we cannot build a robust society and a robust country based on false and distorted readings of the past. Or based on the foundations of false history or distorted history, and as far as I See it, there is no such thing as a goal of history so to say, because the trajectory of the historical establishment, I hate to use that word but anyway. The trajectory of the Indian history establishment, started with you know, having something called a purpose or a goal of history. And as far as I’m concerned, the quest for the truth is only the goal of history, that’s the only goal and nothing else. Such goals have led to a massive politicization of history, especially in India, more so in India. All of you here in this room, I’m sure understand and are aware of the consequences that this kind of politicization of history in India has taken us how far.
So I’ll begin with a small, very humorous quote by an American scholar of history, He says, about politics he says this, and I quote “The first lesson of politics is to forget the first lesson of history”. So I’ll repeat that, “The first lesson of politics is to forget the first lesson of history”. So, let’s look at another quote, “It is an ominous sign of the time that Indian history is being viewed in official circles, in the perspective of recent politics. The official history of the freedom movement of India starts with the premises that India lost independence only in the 18th century, and has thus an experience of subjection to a foreign power for only 2 centuries. Real history on the other hand, teaches us that the major part of India lost independence about 5 centuries before, and merely changed masters in the 18th century.” Most of you know, are aware of who said this, this was by Acharya RC Majumdar, one of the titans of historical scholarship and he wrote this, and he says recent politics, he was referring to 1948.
So in that period, in 1948/49, the likes of you know, eminent historians like Romila Thapar, they were not anywhere around the scene. So what happened to the study of Indian history from then on till now? It’s a well-known story and I don’t need to repeat it, but putting it in one line. The enormous politicization and the downfall of history as a discipline, it has been near total and all of you are familiar with Arun Shourie’s book on eminent historians, their technology, lying, fraud.
So, but in practical terms, this politicization of history simply means this. At least 3 generations of our children have learnt this distorted history, false history, about their own country and culture. And some specimens, some human incarnation, which are the products of this distorted history, include the world famous Swara Bhasker and her gang.
So what have been some consequences of this kind of distorted history, and some major themes, is that India never had a great civilization and culture. All great elements of Indian civilization and culture was a gift of alien invaders, starting with the Aryans who came from outside. Native Indians were barbaric, they were regressive, they were cowardly, they were spineless, they were weak, and therefore they were invaded repeatedly.
And this kind of absolute nonsense is taught from early school level right up to university. We should not be surprised, we should not be sad, that when these kids grow up, they choose to migrate out of India. Your own education teaches your own kids that their own culture, their own country, and they, specifically them as Hindus, in general, are a bunch of buffoons, idiots, weaklings and completely uncultured people. This is what our textbooks teach our children.
So, to pull of this kind of distortion, this kind of sweeping generalization about an entire civilization, you’re talking about real people. To pull off this kind of industrial scale distortion, its history has to be distorted on an equally industrial scale. And nowhere is this distortion most glaring, than in writing about the history of the nearly 1000 year-long Muslim rule of India.
So here are some of the defining characteristics of medieval Muslim rule in India, I don’t need to dwell at it, most of you know this. So it was characterized by all round oppression of Hindus, constant assault on their way of life, their women being abducted at will, desecration of their traditions, customs, institutions, large scale temple destructions, forced conversions, jaziya and so on. It was an Islamic law, I think during Khilji’s period, that the Kafir would be stopped for no reason by a Muslim official, who would sit on the horse and his (the Kafir’s) mouth would be made to open, and this official would spit inside his mouth, and he had to shut up and swallow it and not show any sign of disgust on his face. This was law.
So, all the current historical distortions that we are familiar with in the last 70 odd years, are aimed precisely at white washing, hiding and even denying, these brutal, uncomfortable historical truths which were actually realities. Our Ancestors lived this life on a daily basis.
So this same principle of historical distortion is at work in the case of Tipu Sultan, the Tyrant of Mysore. So Tipu Sultan was a junior contemporary of the last powerful Mughal emperor, Aurangzeb. What Aurangzeb did in a span of 50 years throughout most of India, Tipu did the same thing in just 4 states, in a span of about 17 years, in South India.
“Your Majesty would soon proceed to prosecute a Holy War against infidels, should those infidels Brahmins (that means he is referring to the Marathas), direct their power, the hands of the heroes of the faith of our Muslim soldiers in this part of the world, shall be raised for their punishment. We should unite in carrying on a Holy War against these infidels. Delhi, the seat of government of the Muhammadan faith, has been reduced to this state of ruin, so that the infidels all together prevail now. We should unite in carrying on a Holy War against the infidels and free these regions of Hindustan, in the service of Islam.”
So this was Tipu Sultan’s letter to the Afghan king named Zaman Shah, written sometime in 1794/95. This letter was part of Tipu’s invitation to Zaman Shah to invade India, and establish the Sword of Islam in the country, and free it from the darkness of the Kafirs.
So this letter is just one tiny sample of hundreds of such letters that Tipu wrote to various people. Like the Caliph in Turkey, and also to the French, whom he invited to occupy India and then they would, he dreamt of sharing the spoils of the conquest. So, over the last 40 odd years and upto the present time, this Islamic bigot Tipu Sultan has been hailed in the following terms, he was a “freedom fighter”, he was a “tiger”, he was a “liberator”, of what? I don’t know. He was a “patron of Hinduism”, he was a “tolerant ruler” and even more hilariously, one Kannada article in a mainstream newspaper, described Tipu as a “rocket scientist”. I’m not kidding you! I’m not making this up!
So, lets puncture these myths one by one. We begin with something called sword of Tipu Sultan. So Tipu Sultan’s rehabilitation as a freedom fighter, roughly begins with a secular, I don’t know, eminence, okay. With a secular eminence named Bhagwan S Gidwani, who wrote a novel named “The Sword of Tipu Sultan”, most of you are familiar with this title. So this novel was not based on any sort of history, but it was based on this guy, Bhagwan S Gidwani’s imagination running really wild. So “Sword of Tipu Sultan”, was made into a TV series by Sanjay Khan, most of you might have seen that, it was telecast on Doordarshan. And after a few weeks, it evoked widespread outrage, and a lawsuit was filed against Sanjay Khan by the Bombay Kerala Samaja.
So this fake image of Tipu Sultan as a freedom fighter, was later escalated by the dear departed, by the late Girish Karnad, who wrote a dream called “Tipuvina Kannasugadu”, which means Tipu’s dreams. Which was again heavily borrowed from Gidwani’s novel.
And in 2011 & 2012, there was a proposal by the then union minister for minority affairs, named Mr. Rahman Khan who unfortunately happens to be from my state. It was submitted to the Central Government. The aim of the proposal was to establish an Islamic university near Srirangapatana, named in Tipu’s honour. So Srirangapatana was the seat of power from where Tipu ruled. So this same Rahman Khan, has also taken a DPS School, Delhi Public School franchise in Bangalore.
But apart from all these guys, guess who else has honoured Tipu? Pakistan. (audience member says President of India, Speaker replies “Also! So we will come to that in the Q&A). So Pakistan has named one of its missiles in the honour of Tipu, and the other missile names include Ghaznavi, Ghori, Abdali and Babur.
So what does the oral tradition in Karnataka and Kerala say about Tipu? So in Coorg and Sakleshpur region, street dogs are named after Tipu. And a branch of the Iyengar community hailing from Melukote near Mysore, for generations together, still doesn’t celebrate Deepavali. Im talking about a period that began roughly in the late 18th century. From then on, one sect of the lineage of the Melukote Iyengars, they do not celebrate Deepavali, because it was precisely on the day of Deepavali, back then, that Tipu massacred more than 10,000 Iyengars in Melukote. And, several Kodava Muslim families still retain their original Hindu surnames, their last names their family names. They still retain their original names despite forcible conversion of their ancestors by Tipu.
The Kerala oral tradition remembers Tipu’s “visit” to the Malabar as the “Military March”, where he literally burnt down Kozhikode and several parts of Malabar, right down to the ground. All that was left was ashes. So the Kerala local legends remember this “military March”.
And then we come to the actual historical records, for those who are interested to research more on Tipu. Then that is another irony. Look around you, there is a wealth of historical records that still exist, which show the exact opposite of what Tipu is portrayed. And some of these records are written by Tipu’s own contemporaries and by his own biographer.
So, I’ll give you a partial list. Haider Ali & Tipu Sultan by Lewin B Bowring, Mysore Gazetteer Volume 1 & 2, Selected Letters of Tipu Sultan by Colonel William Kirkpatrick, Nishan-e-Haidri by Mir Hussain Ali Kirmani, who was Tipu’s official biographer, The Malabar Manual by William Logan and some British archives at Fort St.George and Fort St.Williams.
So inspite of availability of all these tonnes of documents, these are primary sources that tell you the real story of that period. It is astonishing that Tipu is still hailed as a patriot and Tiger and whatever. This notion, this image of Tipu still persists.
So I will list out a few key features of Tipu’s rule. It was a regime of military and economic terror. It was characterized by unnecessary destructive raids throughout South India. Most notably, in Malabar and Coorg. And it was also notable for the sheer scale of rural destruction. Entire villages found in the countryside were completely burnt. For example, Kushalnagar, Tallakaveri, Mudikeri, Napoklu. So when you travel to Coorg from Mysore, you get all these major towns and villages, completely burnt to the ground. And Calicut (or Kozhikode) was burnt to the ground as I just told you. This Calicut was a hub of spice trade for several centuries and Tipu’s just one destructive raid, changed its character forever. And spice trade there came to a permanent halt for nearly 40-50 years. And all these places were entirely depopulated, and there was no human habitation after he invaded. Those few of them who survived, the weak and old, all these people, women, they were forcibly converted or killed brutally.
So another key feature of Tipu’s rule was the large scale destruction of Hindu Temples. If you look at the Malabar Manual, it gives you the detailed list of all such temples. I have listed only about 56 in my book, just the major ones that were destroyed. So Lewis writes in the Mysore Gazetteer and I quote, “In a vast empire of Tipu Sultan, on the eve of his death, there were only 2 Hindu temples having daily functional pujas. Only two. Tipu also Islamized every facet of his administration by A) Giving Muslim names to original Hindu cities and towns. Sakleshpur was called Manjarabad and thankfully it was changed back.
So he changed the units of measurement of weights, distance and time, so that it corresponded to some aspect of Prophet Muhammad’s life. He founded a new calendar, and he named each year after a synonym given to Muhammad. And he changed the official administrative language of the Mysore kingdom from Kannada to Farsi. So that Farsi was not real Farsi, and I will come to that in a bit.
Other key features is the complete devastation of Mysore state’s economy through reckless and expensive unprovoked military campaigns. He appointed incompetent officers to key posts, and the only qualification to occupy these bureaucratic posts, was that you had to be a Muslim and bonus, if you were a Hindu who converted, you got a fast track promotion.
And all his attacks I just mentioned, I’ll add some other places which he attacked. Travancore, Nizam of Hyderabad, Gutti, Aduni in Andhra Pradesh, Coorg, Malabar, Bijapur, Raichur, the Krishna-Godavari belt. He also had a habit of repeatedly dishonouring war treaties and peace treaties with the British and other rulers of South India.
So I’ll read out a long-ish quote just to show you a very brief glimpse into the nature of Tipu’s aggressions and invasions. Here is an eye witness account by Father Bartholomew, “First a core of 30,000 barbarians who butchered everyone on the way, followed by the field gun unit, Tipu was riding on an elephant behind which another army of 30,000 soldiers followed. Most of the men and women were hanged in Calicut, first mothers hanged with their children tied to their necks. The barbarian Tipu Sultan tied naked Christians and Hindus to the legs of elephants and made the elephants move around till the bodies of the helpless victims were torn to pieces. Temples and Churches were ordered to be burnt down, desecrated and destroyed. Hindu women were forced to marry Muhammadans and similarly their men were forced to marry Muhammadan women. Those Christians and Hindus who refused to be honoured with Islam, were ordered to be killed by hanging immediately.”
And then we have another eye witness account by a German Christian missionary named Guntest, and he says, “Accompanied by an army of 60,000, Tipu Sultan came to Kozhikode/Calicut in 1788 and razed it to the ground. It is not even possible to describe the brutalities committed by that Islamic barbarian from Mysore.”
So now we come to Colonel William Kirkpatrick. After the fort of Srirangapatana fell to the British, lot of stuff was recovered from what belonged to Tipu. Out of that was a bunch of letters and Kirkpatrick, compiled all of them and published them. He published about 2000 selected letters. These were letters, that Tipu wrote to himself every morning, sitting on the shit-pot. Sorry for the language.
Kirkpatrick writes about the importance of these letters and I quote, “The importance of these letters consists in the vivid illustration which they afford in the talents and disposition of their extraordinary author, who is here successively and repeatedly delineated in colours from his own pencil, as the cruel and relentless enemy, the intolerant bigot or furious fanatic, the oppressive and unjust ruler, the perfidious negotiator.”
So they say that its always the best when it comes directly from the mouth of the horse. So we have Tipu’s own words, “With the grace of Prophet Muhammad and Allah, almost all Hindus in Calicut are converted to Islam. Only on the borders of Cochin state, a few Hindus are still not converted. I am greatly determined to convert them very soon. I consider this as Jihad to achieve that objective”. This Tipu wrote in a letter to one of his military officers named Syed Abdul Dulai, in 1788 because he was so happy that he had burnt down Calicut to the ground.
Another letter, “I Have achieved a great victory recently in Malabar and over 4 Lakh Hindus were converted to Islam. I am now determined to march against the accursed Raman Nayar.” Now its important to remember that Raman Nair was the chieftain of a relatively small kingdom, a bunch of principalities. He and his Nair army beat back Tipu Sultan twice. In one battle he fell down from his palki and literally ran like a coward to save his life. So he wanted to take revenge on Raman Nair.
And then one more letter, during the siege of Nargun in 1786, “In the event of your being obliged to assault the place (that is Nargun), every living creature in it, whether man, woman, old or young, child, dog, cat, owl or anything else must be put to the sword”. One more, “the exciters of sedition in the Coorg country not looking to the consequences have raised their heads. Immediately we proceeded with the utmost speed and made prisoners of 40,000 Coorgs. Then we carried them away from their native country and we raised them to the honours of Islam”. Which means they were forcibly converted.
So, Tipu called his own kingdom as Khudadat Sarkar, meaning Government of Khuda or Allah. And as we have seen he left behind a bankrupt economy and more importantly, for everybody who says that Tipu is a great hero and some kind of reformer, here is a data point. Under Haider Ali, before Haider Ali died, the military force of Mysore was more than 1,20,000. Tipu reduced it to just 50,000 during his late battle. That’s the 4th Karnataka war. So Tipu reckless war also left behind large scale death and destruction in all of South India, spice trade was totally destroyed in Kerala.
We’ve seen all that, and more importantly, he caused a permanent change in the cultural character of several cities, most notably in Karnataka. For example, I spoke to you about changing official language from Kannada, it was written in official documents. For Mysore state it was written in two languages, Marathi and Kannada. Tipu changed this to Farsi and his whatever language policy, that resulted in a bastardized language called Urdu. But that is not Urdu. It’s a horrible love child born out of wedlock of Urdu, some kind of Arabic, some kind of Farsi and some kind of Hindi and some kind of Kannada.
So if anybody knows this Urdu in Karnataka, you might get this joke. I think Vijay will get this, “Kathe Ko Puraladalko, Merveninge Karasu”. It means, “put a garland around a donkey’s neck and bring it out in a procession”. So this is the language that Tipu invented and changed the cultural character. From a patriot national hero, freedom fighter, these are the more enduring myths without basis in history and a survey of that period, shows a struggle for both economic and military power between the French, the British, the Marathas and Tipu Sultan in largely the theatre of South and Western India. This includes parts of Maharashtra also.
So Tipu’s stated goal in his own words was to bring Islam to the infidel land under the sword of Islam, as the selected letters of Kirkpatrick show. For all his celebration as some kind of a great freedom fighter he cultivated deep friendships with the French, to conquer entire India and share the territory equally. And he invited, we saw in the beginning, I told you about his letters to the Afghani king Zaman Shah. He also sent similar invitations to the Turkish caliph and the important point to note is that in Tipu’s time, it was the East India Company who fought wars in India. It was not the British crown that directly fought wars in India. It was a commercial enterprise, named East India Company. And the whole of India was not united under one single rule, under a central rule or whatever you want to call it. But all of India was not united politically under one umbrella.
So the notion of Tipu Sultan fighting for India’s freedom does not arise. So if Tipu is a freedom fighter, why do we hesitate to call Marathas who also fought the British? Why do we hesitate to call them freedom fighters? If Tipu is a freedom fighter, then Siraj-ud-Daula is also a freedom fighter. If Tipu is a freedom fighter, then Nizam of Hyderabad is also a freedom fighter. All of these fought both for their own dominions, for economic and military supremacy, and not for any notion of independence or freedom of India.
Why is Maharaja Ranjit Singh not regarded as a freedom fighter? He fought some of the most decisive battles against the British. It was they who gave him the name Lion of Punjab. For the first time after nearly 300 or 400 years, Afghanistan had Hindu population, had Hindu rule, all because of Maharaja Ranjit Singh.
So I will look at some closing notes. I will say that the whitewashing or distorting of historical truths leads to friction in our own times, because all of you know that to sustain one lie, you have to speak thousands of lies. On the other hand, it is better that we face unpleasant historical truths because, at the most what will you do? You might punch each other in the face? At the most nothing beyond that will happen. But we can sit together at the table and see how we can move forward.
So accepting bitter historical truths and learning constructive lessons from them will always help avoid repeating such brutal history. The biggest example of this kind of truthful approach or lessons learned from history in modern times is, the various holocaust museums in Germany and other parts of the world.
With that I think I can conclude this part of the session and many thanks to Srijan Foundation and the entire team. Thank You.