A Tale Of Two Rulers: Secular Lies About Tipu Sultan

by B C Anish Krishnan Nayar - Nov 10, 2016 09:30 PM +05:30 IST
A Tale Of Two Rulers: Secular Lies About Tipu SultanTipu Sultan/Karthika Thirunal Rama Varma (Wikimedia Commons)
  • The Karnataka government celebrated Tipu Sultan’s birthday as a government ceremony.

    While celebrating his birthday in itself is not a problem, what irritates this writer is that people in large numbers claim Tipu to be a secular ruler.

    This is also an examination of the selective amnesia of our “progressive” historians.

“The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.”
George Orwell

Tipu Sultan has become a secular superhero among “intellectuals” in India. In their eternal urge to appease these intellectuals and a fraction of the vote bank, the Karnataka government celebrated his birthday as a government ceremony. I don’t know about its effects on the elections whenever they are up. But the immediate effect was loss of lives and property.

Personally, I am not against celebrating Tipu’s birthday. This is a democratic country. People have the rights to do whatever they like as long as it’s not illegal. There are people who celebrate the birthdays of Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, Mao and other leaders. In Tamil Nadu, the memories of mythological “Dravidians”, like Ravana and Narakaasura, are cherished. If this the case, no one can bat an eyelid on people who promote Tipu Sultan. People need some iconic figures to project their ideology, like baseball teams need mascots to boost their confidence and that of their fans.

I am not baffled by the Karnataka government's decision to celebrate it with government honours. (No argument over the fact that the Tamil Nadu government took a sensible decision in this issue; but then, sense is a rarity in the current political scenario). Indian politicians are ready for any circus as long as it would enhance their vote bank. If they are convinced that a few thousand voters are ardent fans of Sunny Leone, without any hesitation our politicians would float an idea of celebrating her birthday as a national event. All they ask for is a few more votes. Integrity, common sense and responsibility are mere words that were forfeited decades ago.

What irritates me is that these people claim Tipu to be a secular ruler. How secular was Tipu? Let’s hear his words:

Don’t you know I have achieved a great victory recently in Malabar and over four lakh Hindus were converted to Islam? I am determined to march against that cursed Raman Nair very soon. Since I am overjoyed at the prospect of converting him and his subjects to Islam, I have happily abandoned the idea of going back to Srirangpatanam now.
A letter sent on 19 January 1790 from Tipu Sultan to Budruz Zuman Khan, originally quoted in K M Panicker’s article in Bhasha Poshini, August 1923

Going by these standards, even the Islamic State is secular.

I wanted to find out what the apologisers of Tipu say about this. I did not look for an answer from the works of our usual suspects headed by Romila Thapar as I was very weak to withstand one more onslaught of conspiracy theory produced by ideological obstinacy. So I referred to History of Tipu Sultan by Professor Mohibbul Hasan, who is very kind to Tipu and who often eulogises him. Prof. Hasan raises the question and provides an answer in a chapter entitled ‘State and Religion’. He says:

Now if Tipu was not a bigot but an enlightened and tolerant ruler, how is it that he issued orders for the forcible conversions of Hindus in Coorg and Malabar to Islam? The true explanation appears to be that he did this not due to religious but due to political motives. He regarded conversion as a form of punishment which he inflicted on such of his non-Muslim subjects as were guilty of repeated rebellion.

Conversion to Islam is a punishment?! That speaks volumes of Tipu’s understanding of his religion.

There is one more contemporary document that throws light on the tolerance of Tipu. It is entitled ‘The Dreams of Tipu Sultan’. The title has no metaphor. Tipu believed in the interpretation of dreams (not in a Freudian way) and kept a record of 37 dreams in his own writing. The manuscript was located, and these dreams were translated from Persian to English by Mahamud Hussain, Professor of History, University of Karachi. It was published by Pakistan Historical Society. Here’s a look at dream number 33, entitled ‘Almond and Stones’:

On the 1st of the month Dini, of the year Shadab, 1226, from the birth of Muhammad, on Thursday, when four watches of the day were yet to go, while in the metropohs, I had a dream : I seemed to be reciting the names of God on almonds among which I had mixed ‘salgram’i stones, salgram being an object of worship by the unbelievers. My motive in doing so was that like their idols who were embracing Islam, the unbelievers also would enter the fold of Islam. On concluding my recitation, I stated that all the idols of the unbelievers had embraced Islam and I ordered the stones to be picked out and replaced by almonds. My interpretation is that by the grace of God all unbelievers would embrace Islam and the country would pass into the hands of the Sarkar-iKhudadad.(92-93) 

How secular. But let me stop my rant here, as Tipu’s bigotry and tyranny have been well documented by Sandeep Balakrishna in his Tipu Sultan: The Tyrant of Mysore.

I don’t know how our celebrated historians manage to suppress these facts and speak and write in complete contradiction to the available evidence. Maybe they suffer from a strange form of amnesia that causes such actions? Ideology might be the causative factor, but we are yet to find a medicine.

Victims of this strange disease not only elevate Tipu as an ideal ruler through their public discourse but also conveniently hide and obliterate the noble actions of another benign king. How many of us have heard about Dharma Raja?

Karthika Thirunal Rama Varma (1724-1798), Maharajah of Travancore, was a contemporary of Tipu’s and his formidable rival. A magnanimous and brave ruler of whom Tipu spoke as “cursed Raman Nair”. He was hailed as Dharma Raja by the public as he ruled in strict adherence to the raja dharma (ethics of a ruler) and granted asylum to thousands of Hindus and Christians who were displaced by Tipu, in spite of the warning that such an act might instigate him.

Rama Varma succeeded a celebrated ruler of Travancore, Marthanda Varma. In 1756, Hyder Ali had invaded Malabar and succeeded in extracting Rs 4,00,000 and 10 elephants as tribute from Cochin. He demanded 1.5 million and 30 elephants from Travancore. Else, he threatened to pay a visit to Travancore. Rama Varma refused to pay a single penny, saying Hyder took the expedition to Malabar neither due to his advice nor for his pleasure. However, Rama Varma graciously offered to pay the expenses incurred by Hyder Ali, from his coffers, if the latter agreed to reinstate the kings of Kolathunad and Calicut, who were deposed by the invasion.

Hyder Ali was angered by the retort, but had to rush back to Mysore before causing further mischief. This incident shows the valour and kindness of Rama Varma. He was not afraid to face Hyder Ali in the battlefield. On the other hand, he was ready to pay a ransom, not for his own sake, but for the welfare of his neighbouring states.

In 1788, Tipu followed his father’s footsteps into Kerala under the ruse of suppressing rebellions. The Raja of Cochin had to accept the status of a vassal under Tipu. Members of a few Royal houses and large numbers of Hindus and Christians fled to Travancore to escape from forced conversion and other cruelties at the hands of Tipu. Rama Varma gave asylum to all of them. Idols of deities and wealth brought by the royal families were kept at the treasury of Shri Padmanaba Swamy Temple. It is a part of the treasure now found within the temple complex. Not only people, but also a few deities found a permanent home at Thiruvananthapuram, Rama Varma’s capital. Even now visitors can see a temple of Kiratha Sastha ie Vettaikarumakan (Saastha as Hunter) in the heart of the city. The Hunter God was brought from deep jungles by his worshippers to the city, when fleeing from Tipu.

What was an act of Raja Dharma in lines with athithi devo bhava to Rama Varma was an act of blatant disrespect to Tipu. He wanted to teach a lesson to Rama Varma. The King of Cochin tried to broker a peace. But Rama Varma had already made strategic alliance with English East India Company to protect his subjects from the atrocities of Tipu.

In December 1789, Tipu launched an attack at Nedumkolta, Travancore's northern frontier. A handful of Travancore soldiers under the leadership of Dhivan Raja Kesava Dhas managed not only to repel the attack but also to cause severe damage to Tipu's army. Tipu himself had to be carried away from the battlefield as he was severely injured. Due to that injury, Tipu suffered from gouts of pain, slight lameness until his death. His sword and other personal effects were seized by Travancore army. Tipu wrote a letter to the then Governor of East India Company (Madras) complaining that he was severely attacked by Travancore army. He did not hesitate to lie that he entered Travancore in search of a few fugitives.

By March 1790, Tipu launched a second attack on Nedumkota. He succeeded this time not only because of the size of his army but also because of the fact that the British East India Company failed to deploy their army along with Travancore forces, as promised by them earlier.

Tipu’s success did not last long. He and his army were taught a lesson by the Travancore army under Kalikutty Nair when they tried to cross River Periyar. Tipu had planned to outwit his enemies by doing the task after sunset, but he and his army were taken to task by the Travancore army. Tipu's life was saved only because of the wisdom of his General Kamrudin Khan. He fell at the feet of Tipu and convinced Tipu to run for his life. Tipu abandoned his palanquin and personal effects. Due to his earlier injury, he was unable to run fast. A couple of trusted soldiers carried Tipu on their shoulders to safety.

The story goes on. I don’t plan to bore you with more episodes that are part of “history”. What I want to reiterate is the fact that Rama Varma gave asylum to the people from other principalities irrespective of caste or creed or religion, in spite of the risk of facing Tipu’s wrath and possible death at his hands. Among the people who found safety in Travancore were a number of Christians. His religious tolerance was appreciated by the then Pope Clement XIV. The Pope thanked Rama Varma for his kindness towards Christians and officially placed all the Roman Catholics of that region under his sovereign protection (A Survey of Kerala History by Sreedhara Menon).

The King was a connoisseur of Arts, a Kathakali playwright and composer of numerous carnatic hymns.

Have we ever heard of this benign yet valorous ruler? Does any member of the celebrated ‘intelligentsia’ care to call him secular in the right sense of the term? Is his birthday celebrated with pomp? The answer is no.

Historians have managed to push Rama Varma, the only ruler in our history with the title Dharma Raja, into oblivion. People outside Kerala would not have heard about him. But all of us know Tipu Sultan. Even with all his cruelties, his tale has been turned into a legend. Tipu continues to cause unrest, fear and loss of lives even after his death.

This is one instance of how our “secular” historians manage to feign secular amnesia and inflict the masses with this strange illness through their historiography.

Now read those words by George Orwell once again.

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