Tipu Sultan: Two Centuries Later
By Dr Syed Amir
Bethesda, MD

Over two centuries have elapsed since Sultan Fateh Ali Khan, popularly known as Tipu Sultan, was defeated by the forces of East India Company in the fourth Anglo-Mysore war in 1799 in Seringapatam. The Sultan had mounted a heroic resistance, but was overwhelmed by combined British and native forces and died fighting gallantly on the battlefield. Arthur Wellesley, the British General who commanded the forces against Tipu Sultan, was the younger brother of the-then Governor General, Richard Wellesley, but was a little-known military commander. However, some sixteen years later as the Duke of Wellington, he excelled and became a legendary figure, following his decisive victory over Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte of France in 1815 at Waterloo in present-day Belgium.

Tipu Sultan has long been a controversial figure in Indian history, often reviled by some for his presumed religious zealotry and bigoted policies directed at a majority non-Muslim population. Various treatises on his rule by Indian and some British historians, however, are highly discordant in their accounts of his policies and practices. Some historiographers are effusive in their praise of his religious pluralism, and ecumenical practices, finding little or no fault in his treatment of non-Muslims. Others disparage him for their mistreatment, accusing him of ignominious acts, such as destruction of Hindu and Christian places of worship. He is said to have been fired with the desire to establish an Islamic state in the whole of India, soliciting help in his mission from King Zaman Shah of Afghanistan (1796) and Ottoman Sultan Salim III (1784).

In support of their contention, his detractors cite Sultan’s orders in 1788 to his Governor of Calicut to forcibly convert 200 Brahmins to Islam. Similarly, some 70,000 Coorgis or Kodavas, as they are called in the present-day Karnataka state, on his orders were converted to Islam. However, most historians find these figures widely exaggerated, although they concede that there may be some truth in them. A devout Muslim, Sultan, his critics argue, was unable to generate loyalty even among his personal staff, as showcased by the conduct of his two Diwans, Mir Sadiq and a Hindu Brahmin, Purnaiya, both of whom betrayed him during the final battle. Much like the accusation of his mistreatment of Hindus, there are reports of persecution of Christians as well, with the destruction of 27 Catholic churches, and forced conversion of Europeans imprisoned in his palace.

Contrary to these claims, a substantial body of evidence attests to Tipu Sultan’s benevolence and religious tolerance. Mahmood Khan Banglori in his sympathetic biography, Saltanat e Khudad, published some two decades ago, has cited specific examples where the Sultan extended generous financial assistance to temples, establishing trusts and endowments for their benefit. He is reported to have bestowed over 30 grant deeds, besides generous gifts of jewelry, gold and silver, upon various temples. He is believed to have been particularly solicitous of and deferential to Hindu priests and Sadhus.

A fervent believer in astrology, he frequently consulted Hindu astrologers, invoking their blessings and interventions to avert ominous events. Importantly, Hindus served in highly visible and powerful positions in his administration, functioning as treasurer, minister of police and the Sultan’s personal representatives at the Mughal court. Evidence of his open-mindedness is also provided, according to some historians, by the two magnificent Hindu temples that stood next to his royal palace in the capital city of Seringapatam.

Tipu Sultan’s life and reign are principally remembered for his resistance to East India Company’s imperial designs on India. However, less recognized is his singular foresight in developing a network of international relations to enlist the assistance of foreign powers in his struggle against the British. The French were his natural allies as they were vying with the British for a foothold in India. The Sultan had previously established some diplomatic contacts with King Louis XVI of France in 1788, hoping to receive military equipment, supplies and manpower from his Government. Before any help could materialize, the monarchy was overthrown in the French revolution of 1789. New contacts and fresh correspondence was initiated when Napoleon Bonaparte came to power. Napoleon had grand designs of his own as he launched in 1798 his ill-fated invasion of Egypt, which was at the time nominally a province of the Ottoman Empire. He wanted to use Egypt as a base to advance his agenda, join up with the forces of Tipu Sultan and drive out the British from India. However, after initial successes, Napoleon was forced to flee Egypt and his armies were defeated by the joint British-Ottoman forces.

Of late, there has been renewed Interest in India in the re-evaluation of the life and legacy of Tipu Sultan, following the bicentennial anniversary of his death. There are signs that his reputation may be on the verge of partial rehabilitation. Last year, the Aligarh Muslim University held a seminar on his life and accomplishments, and the vice chancellor, Lt General (Retd) Zameer Uddin Shah, announced plans to name the Center for Strategic Studies after him to mark his 214 th death anniversary.

Much like the sorry fate that befell the family of the mighty Mughal rulers of India after the decline and extinction of the empire in 1857, descendents of Tipu Sultan are reportedly languishing in poverty and neglect in the poor neighborhood of Kolkata where their ancestors had been deported to. The present Indian state of Kanataka that incorporates the former Mysore kingdom has decided to restore some royal privileges to the Sultan’s descendents.

Unlike in India, one of Sultan’s direct descendent, Princess Noor Inayat Khan, his great, great, great, granddaughter achieved international fame for volunteering to fight the Nazi occupation of Europe during the Second World War. While, serving as an intelligence agent for the allied forces, she was captured by the Germans, sent to a concentration camp where she was tortured and executed in September 1944. In keeping with the traditions of his grandfather, she bravely withstood the torture, never revealing any military secrets to the Germans. She was posthumously awarded the George Cross in 1949, the highest civilian honor of the British Government.

Today, two centuries later, it is difficult to delineate the truth of various conflicting reports related to Tipu Sultan’s reign and his treatment of non-Muslim subjects. Many of these narratives are burdened with partisan baggage, lacking objectivity. The early reports are especially suspect, as they were provided by the British Generals who had participated in battles against the Sultan and who had a natural dislike of him. Regardless of the validity of the various historic documents, it is certain that Tipu Sultan was one of the most gifted and insightful Muslim rulers of South India who was endowed with unrivaled military acumen.

 

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Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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