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Year 2001, No 1
India Unmade:
Disastrous Economic Policies Of the Vajpayee Government
On Identities, Nstiolal and others
By Tarun Bhartiya
Communalism and Tribal Welfare
Towards a Critical Perspective on Secular Action
By Archana Prasad
Journalism: Profit over People
By J B D'Souza
Shape of Knowledge:
Convocation Address at the University of Delhi
By Romila Thapar
On Two Great Plebian Rulers of Mysore
Review of a book on Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan
By Naresh Nadeem
On Two Great Plebian Rulers of Mysore

Irfan Habib (ed)

Resistance & Modernisation under Haidar Ali & Tipu Sultan

New Delhi: Tulika for Indian History Congress, 1999

pp xlviii + 206 + 15 photo plates

price: Rs 220


One of the saddest things that took place in 1999 was that, despite its great significance for modern Indian history, May 4 came and passed just like any other day, with the people not even recalling that on that very day 200 years ago, Tipu Sultan--that great warrior against the British colonial drive--had bravely died while holding his ground. The government in New Delhi maintained a stoic silence on the day. That was not in the least surprising, however, for this government is controlled by the very same communal forces who had, let us recall, created a furore about a decade ago on the issue of a television serial and used the occasion to spit venom against this hero of India's epic struggle against colonialism. The Karnataka government, of course, organised some programmes to remember this great son of the country.

Commendable effort

At the unofficial level, a commendable effort was made by the Indian History Congress (IHC) whose December 1998 session in Patiala had decided to dedicate its diamond jubilee session to commemorating the bicentenary of Tipu Sultan's martyrdom in 1799. It was during its diamond jubilee session, held in December 1999, that the IHC released the volume under review.

[In the same session, yet another volume on the tercentenary of Khalsa (prepared under the auspices of the IHC) was also released.]

Edited by Professor Irfan Habib, the eminent historian, the volume under review brings together 25 valuable essays; 24 of these were published in annual Proceedings of the Indian History Congress (various volumes) or in other journals. We call these essays valuable in the sense that many of them were not even known to contemporary students of modern Indian history. Here therefore one cannot but register one's appreciation of the arduous efforts put in by many scholars, under the guidance of the learned editor, to locate these essays so that they are made available to contemporary readers. The important historians whose articles the volume contains, include Jadunath Sarkar and Mohibbul Hasan; the latter's History of Tipu Sultan is to date the only authentic account of Tipu's life and struggle. The 25th essay in the volume, entitled "The Forts of Tipu Sultan: Views by the Daniells," has been written specifically for the present volume by Professor Som Prakash Verma, a noted art historian.

Plebian rulers

The book opens with an essay by Barun De, one of the doyens of Indian historiography. Entitled "The Ideological and Social Background of Haidar Ali and Tipu Sultan," the essay is an attempt to trace the genealogy of the two Muslim rulers of Mysore, who rose from a very humble background. They came from a lineage that served Sufi shrines in South India, notwithstanding the attempts made to trace their origin to the Arab Quraish tribe to which the prophet of Islam belonged. De's contention is that it is this plebian background of Haidar Ali and Tipu Sultan that explains the "politics of the alternative culture" in the late 18th century -- politics that was symbolised by "Haidar and Tipu's rise as a new "national-popular" alternative in Karnataka."

However, this very conclusion gives rise to another question that has not been satisfactorily answered to date. A number of historians, including Professor De himself, recognise that Haidar and Tipu stood head and shoulders above other Indian rulers of the late 18th century. In fact, the very opening paragraph of De's article reiterates in what ways Tipu was different from the "Nizam Ali Khans, Asafuddaulahs, Nana Fadnavis(es) or other princes and statesmen of an age when colonialism was destroying the Indian ancient regime brick by brick." De is quite candid in admitting that Tipu "was distinctly an alternative element in late eighteenth century South Asian political culture" and "more of a ghazi (religious warrior -- reviewer) than the average feudal carpet-knight." Moreover, a resolute fight against the British colonial drive in India was one of the more important elements that distinguished the father-son duo from the Nizam, Marathas, Sikhs and other Indian rulers of the age -- rulers who really never recognised Haidar and Tipu as one of them.

But then the question one would ask is: How far the resistance put up by Haidar Ali and Tipu Sultan was the product of their plebian background -- the very background that created a "dervish streak" in their personalities?

Something in this regard can of course be gleamed from Ishtiaq Husain Qureshi's article "Tipu Sultan's Embassy to Constantinople, 1787." The article shows how the other contemporary rulers used to treat Haidar Ali and Tipu Sultan not as their equals but as inferior to them, as mere military adventurers; in fact, the Nizam of Hyderabad used to refer to Haidar Ali as "Haidar Naik" in place of Nawab (or Sultan) Haidar Ali. It was this attitude of elitism that brought to nought all the attempts made by Tipu Sultan to secure "sanction from the Mughal Court for his position as one of the princes of the empire," and compelled him to raise the banner of revolt against the Mughal emperor who in any case headed an empire only in name. Tipu then not only declared himself independent but also tried to get his sovereignty recognised by European powers that were inimical to the British, by the rulers of Afghanistan and Iran, and by the Sultan of Turkey. In fact, the latter did recognise Tipu's sovereignty; which was of considerable importance for our hero, as the Sultan of Turkey was, in the people's perception, not just another Sultan but the Caliph, spiritual head of the Islamic world.

Yet, notwithstanding the well researched article by Qureshi, the question we posed above, still requires a deeper probing.

Contemporary relevance

Though the articles included in the volume under review were written over a long span of time (some were published even before independence), it seems they do have one major common concern -- to rebut the charges that were levelled against Haidar Ali and Tipu Sultan by British imperialist officers and historians. Thus we find D S Achuta Rau refuting the calumny spread by British historians that Haidar Ali had turned defeatist in 1782, just before his death, and repented his attitude vis-a-vis the English. Posing Haidar as repentant in the end was something absolutely essential for the British who wanted to convince other Indian rulers of the invincibility of English arms.

Similarly, the article by A P Ibrahim Kunju traces the background in which Tipu was compelled to wage war against the ruler of Travancore -- an issue which the forces of majority communalism have constantly sought to use against "the tiger of Mysore." Other articles of the volume also seek to refute one or another piece of calumny spread by the British. Such articles appear extremely relevant in view of the fact that Haidar and Tipu were perhaps the only late 18th century Indian rulers whom their British adversaries most bitterly maligned and demonised, and who are still maligned by communal forces -- no less bitterly.

In the same vein, in his long but well documented and well argued introduction, Professor Irfan Habib also refutes some of the canards spread against the father-son duo by the British. He, for instance, refers to the highly exaggerated stories told about Tipu's "barbarities" by the English men who were taken prisoner of war in 1783, and released later. The editor of the volume then writes: "Very few asked then, as very few have done later, how the English had treated their prisoners of war." Then he goes on to quote from Lt John Charles Shean's letter that narrates the horrendous massacre perpetrated by the English, without giving any "quarter" to anyone, after the capture of the fort of Anantpur. Similarly, after Tipu's garrison at the fort of Penagra surrendered in October 1791, 150 of them were "put to the sword" in cold blood, for having "violated the rules of war" by not surrendering earlier.

Professor Irfan Habib then tersely, and quite justifiably, comments: "The fault of Tipu, then, was that he gave quarter and took prisoners alive. The English gave no quarter, and so they had few prisoners with them to ill-treat."

Inter-communal relations

In this context, the articles that deal with inter-communal relations under Haidar Ali and Tipu Sultan have an extraordinary contemporary relevance. For example, the article "Tipu's Endowments to Hindus and Hindu Institutions" by A Subbaraya Chetty, and more so the article "Tipu Sultan as Defender of Hindu Dharma" by B A Saletore, are not only worth reading but worth pondering over. Both these articles were published before independence, yet one feels as though their authors are engaged in a running battle with the communal elements of today who are out to demonise Tipu.

Chetty, for instance, talks of writers of "three schools" vis-a-vis the religious policy of Tipu Sultan. While those like Wilks presented him as an unmitigated Muslim fanatic like Aurangzeb or even worse, those like S N Sen opined that Tipu tolerated the practice of Hinduism in his own territory "but the same toleration was not allowed to the population of the enemy countries by the zealous Mohammedan ruler of Mysore." According to a third group of writers, Tipu came to have a certain degree of faith in the efficacy of the Hindu ceremonies of incantation, etc., only in the second half of his rule, that is since 1791, when destroying his enemies became his only obssession. Chetty refutes all the three types of opinion and shows, on the basis of documentary evidence, that "Tipu from the beginning of his rule was as sympathetic and faithful to the Hindus as to the Muslims."

Similarly, Saletore begins by refuting Vincent Smith's contention that Tipu, despite his "fierce Muslim bigotry," used to take recourse to Hindu prayers and make gifts to Hindu temples "in time of danger." Saletore has no intention of justifying whatever excesses Tipu might have committed. But he says: "If historians were to judge rulers only by the destructive actions which they committed, it is very doubtful whether we could find in any age or country a monarch who could escape condemnation. That Sultan Tipu was prone to excesses and that, in this regard, he justified the apprehensions of his great father, cannot be doubted. But in spite of his weaknesses, Sultan Tipu's special claim to recognition at the hands of posterity is the honest endeavour he made to further the cause of the Hindu dharma in his kingdom." The long article then goes on to narrate the steps taken by Tipu Sultan regarding the welfare and prosperity of the Sringeri Matha in particular and of Hindu religion in general.

The article by Saletore also brings out a sad episode in the religious history of India. It is known that a slogan of restoring the glory of Hinduism was what the Marathas used as an ideological prop for the expansion and consolidation of their power in India. Yet, during his campaign in the western parts of Tipu's domain in 1791-92, Maratha general Parasurambhau raided the Sringeri Matha and wrecked a terrible havoc in and around the shrine. Under his command, Maratha forces "despoiled the sanctum sanctorum of the Matha, pulled out the sacred image of the goddess Sarada from her pedestal, and robbed the Matha to the extent of sixty lakhs of rupees."

So much for the self-appointed defenders of Hinduism! On the other hand, it was Tipu -- alleged to be a Muslim fanatic and bigot -- who took all possible measures to get the shrine repaired and restore its glory! According to Saletore, "It is here that we see Sultan Tipu as the real defender of the Hindu dharma, not in the manner of a political profiteer who made use of the confusion that existed in the Hindu ranks", but as "a saviour of one of the greatest spiritual centres of learning that belonged to a religion other than the one which he professed." Will today's votaries (!) of Hindutva, who never tire of vilifying Sultan Tipu, say something on this episode to enlighten us?

The article also brings out a remarkable aspect of Sultan Tipu's personality. Referring to the orders issued and letters written by Tipu in connection with religious matters, Saletore says they were "written in the language of the people -- Kannada", which shows that "the ruler, in spite of the fact that he was adept in Persian and Urdu, and in spite of the fact that he could trace his descent to a line that was non-Indian in origin, yet preferred to identify himself entirely with the interests of the people, and to use their own language even in official orders."

Attempts at modernisation

Apart from the determined resistance put up to the colonial expansionist drive of the British, an attempt at modernisation was another important element that distinguished Haidar Ali and Tipu Sultan from other contemporary rulers who were, as we know today, thoroughly incompetent and did not look beyond their noses. Available evidence goes to prove that the duo tried their level best to modernise Mysore even though these attempts included a few idiosyncracies, like an attempt to start a new calendar.

In this regard, two things stand out quite clearly from the volume under review. One is the attempt to modernise the economic life including agriculture; Tipu even embarked on an ambitious plan to start a public sector trading enterprise on the pattern of the European East India Companies. Secondly, Haidar began a drive to create a modern and powerful navy, and Tipu not only continued this drive but took it ahead. Nay, he persisted in this drive even after the British destroyed a good part of his navy during the third Mysore War.

The reason is obvious. In an age when most of the Indian rulers were content with leading a life of ostentatious pomp and pleasure, but in fact a puerile life, Haidar and Tipu had come to realise that neither could their kingdom prosper, nor could an effective resistance to the British be put up without modernising the economy and in particular, the army, They well surmised that the secret of British power lay in their economic strength and in their command over the oceans. The British, too, well knew what dangers to their interests in India were inherent in Tipu's drive at modernisation, and they tried their level best to nip this drive in the bud. The volume under review contains several articles that bring out in sharp focus this aspect of Haidar and Tipu's contribution to modern India. Even though these attempts at modernisation did not fructify because of Tipu's untimely death in 1799, it does not diminish a bit the value of the father-son duo's plans and projects in this regard.

The volume also contains an extract from Francis Buchanan's A Journey from Madras through the Countries of Mysore, Canara and Malabar that was published in 1807, in three volumes, under the auspices of the East India Company. According to the editorial note prefixed to the extract, despite the author's obvious bias against the two Mysore rulers, the two passages extracted from the book give an idea of Haidar Ali as an agrarian administrator and of Tipu Sultan as a moderniser. But, sadly, the reviewer felt disappointed after going through these passages. Particularly the passage about Tipu has nothing to present him as a moderniser; if anything, it is full of imperialist diatribe against him though there is nothing surprising in this. Perhaps a bit more caution could have been exercised in selecting a passage from the book whose author toured through the territories of Mysore, Canara and Malabar at the behest of the English East India Company in 1800-1801, after the martyrdom of Tipu Sultan.

Overall, the book under review is an excellent collection of articles about the two Muslim rulers of Mysore whose place in modern Indian history still remains to be fully assessed. It is pleasant reading on the whole, and illuminating at the same time.

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