It’s election season in Karnataka—and time to revive BJP’s favourite bogeyman, an 18th century ruler named Tipu. This time, however, the party is pushing a fanciful story about his death—aimed at wooing a key voting bloc: the Vokkaligas
Editor’s note: In part two, we will wade into the debate over whether Tipu was a Muslim bigot who terrorised his subjects—or merely a ruthless ruler of his times—who also entertained fantasies of meeting Hindu gods.
Researched by: Rachel John & Priyanka Gulati
Remind me about Tipu Sultan…
Origin story: Born in 1750 in present-day Bangalore, he ruled the kingdom of Mysore between 1782 and 1799. He inherited the throne from his father Hyder Ali—who usurped the throne from the Wodeyar royal family. Together, father and son fought four wars against the East India Company—known as the Anglo-Mysore Wars. Hyder Ali died in the midst of the second war.
The Tipu years: He inherited a vast kingdom that included all of modern Karnataka—and parts of Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and northern Kerala. But his reign remained under threat from the English. In the third Anglo-Mysore War, Tipu went on the offensive and attacked a key English ally, Travancore. The Marathas and the Nizam of Hyderabad joined forces with the Company to soundly defeat Tipu. He was forced to cede half his kingdom and give up two sons as hostages.
The end of Tipu Sultan: He was finally killed in 1799 during the fourth Anglo-Mysore War—where he once again faced off against the Company and its native allies. His kingdom was handed back to the Wodeyars—and his children were exiled. But more than 200 years later, the circumstances of his death have become an electoral controversy.
What’s the controversy over his death?
First, some background: Until 2015, the BJP in Karnataka had no problem with Tipu Sultan. Its leaders routinely celebrated his birthday. The 2012 BJP government even published a booklet praising his achievements—which included a message from then CM Jagadish Shettar:
The modern history of Karnataka covering the period 1782-1799 is known for the significant role played by Tipu Sultan, popularly known as the tiger of the Mysore kingdom. His concept of nation State, his idea of State entrepreneurship, his advanced military skill, his zeal for reforms, etc. make him a unique leader far ahead of his age.
There are also photos of BJP bigwigs sporting the sultan’s signature headwear:
The trigger: It all kicked off in 2015 when Congress CM Siddaramaiah designated November 10 as the ‘Hazrat Tipu Sultan Jayanti’—making it a state festival. This was part of an attempt to woo various minority constituencies. He also announced state festivals to honour the sage Bhagiratha and Devara Dasimayya to woo other communities. FYI: Muslims are nearly 13% of Karnataka’s population—and play a significant role in at least 20 urban seats.
The great ideological shift: The move triggered an immediate backlash led by the BJP. In the ensuing protests, two people died—including a Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) member. Since then, Tipu’s birthday has sparked tensions and sometimes violence. According to political experts, the BJP has seized on Tipu as the perfect vote bank weapon. It helps consolidate Hindu votes in the state—especially in the coastal areas: “The plan is to unite upper and lower castes in the state, and to make Dalits in Karnataka vote as Hindus, and not as Dalits.” And each year, the Tipu anniversary helps paint Congress as the ‘anti-Hindu’ party that is soft on Muslims. The playbook is almost identical to that used in the Hindi belt.
The Onake Obavva card: Campaigning in the state during the 2018 election, Narendra Modi asked why the Congress party was eager to celebrate Tipu Sultan—and not Onake Obavva. According to legend, she was a great Dalit warrior who fought the forces of Hyder Ali single-handedly with a pestle (‘onake’ in Kannada)—when he invaded Chitradurga. After the BJP took power, the government celebrated ‘Onake Obavva Jayanti’ on November 11—exactly a day after Tipu Jayanti. There are now Onake Obavva police squads of women constables and even an Onake Obavva Corporation for women’s welfare.
Irony alert: Hyder Ali invaded Chitradurga in 1779 as a general leading the army of the all-too-Hindu Wodeyars.
Ok, but you still haven’t told me about Tipu’s death…
Yes, yes. With assembly elections round the corner, the BJP is once again beating the Tipu drum. The state party chief has declared the election a civilisational war between the “offspring of Tipu” and those who sing “bhajans of Ram.” This time around, the party has seized on the circumstances of Tipu’s death—which remain murky.
The death of Tipu: According to historian Kate Brittlebank, the most credible account is as follows:
The most credible account of his death, based on information supplied by those who were there, is that he had gone out of his palace to investigate a report that one of his generals had been killed. But by this time, enemy soldiers had entered the fort through the breach and Tipu joined in the defence. He fell, wounded. In the melee, as he lay where his men had placed him, a British soldier tried to remove his jewelled belt. Attempting to stop him, Tipu struck out with the sword he still held in his hand. The soldier shot him.
Enter, a Kannada play: Addanda C. Cariappa—who is the head of a theatre in Mysore—has written a play titled ‘Tippu Nijakanasugalu’—which was staged in 2022. According to its script, Tipu is killed not by an English soldier but two Vokkaliga chieftains: Uri Gowda and Nanje Gowda. Cariappa claims the play is “a stage adaptation of true history.” Here’s how it describes Tipu’s end:
The play opens with the scene of Tipu’s death in Srirangapatna fort during the IV Anglo-Mysore War on May 4, 1799. In the climax of the play, Uri Gowda and Nanje Gowda, disguised as Tipu’s soldiers, describe themselves as “Veera Vokkaligaru”, loyal to the Wadiyar rulers of Mysuru, and kill him. They proclaim that with his death ends Tipu’s “dream of a Muslim kingdom.”
The evidence (or lack thereof): When pressed, Cariappa failed to produce any documentation to back up his account. The BJP first cited lavanis (folk narratives) as proof of the existence of the two Gowdas. Then it referred to a book titled ‘Suvarna Mandya’. But historians unanimously agree that the men are a “pure figment of the right-wing imagination.” But that has not stopped the party from warmly embracing this bit of “true history”:
In December 2022, BJP leader CT Ravi claimed in Karnataka’s Mandya that the two Vokkaliga leaders – Uri and Naje Gowda – had contributed to the development of the Mysore region, not Tipu Sultan. He also promised to build their statues in the Mandya district. A few weeks ago, Karnataka Higher Education Minister CN Ashwath Narayan, addressing a rally in Mandya, said that “Vokkaliga chieftains Uri Gowda and Nanje Gowda finished off Tipu Sultan,” and that similarly, the Vokkaliga voters of the district should “finish off” Siddaramaiah.
What’s worth noting: The Vokkaliga version had been making rounds of rightwing social media for some time before Cariappa turned it into a play. And a production house owned by a BJP minister is now working on a film titled ‘Uri Gowda Nanje Gowda’.
Ok, they are wooing the Vokkaligas, yes?
Yes. Karnataka politics is dominated by the rivalry between two dominant communities—Lingayats and Vokkaligas. The Lingayats only account for 14-16% of the population—and the Vokkaliga numbers are even smaller: 10-11%. Yet, MLAs belonging to these two castes won roughly half the seats in the 2018 assembly election.
BJP’s Vokkaliga problem: The party has successfully wooed the Lingayats, but Vokkaligas have traditionally voted for either Congress or JD(S). They dominate 11 districts in South Karnataka aka ”Old Mysore”—which has 61 assembly seats. The BJP cannot win a simple majority without making inroads into Vokkaliga territory.
The great wooing: As a result, the party has been going all out to court the community. When PM Modi inaugurated the Mysuru-Bengaluru highway, four arches were erected along the route. One of them was dedicated to Uri and Nanje Gowda—and the other to the great Vokkaliga leader Kempe Gowda. Modi also unveiled a 108-foot bronze statue of Kempe Gowda—an event witnessed by busloads of Vokkaliga farmers shipped in from the villages.
As for Tipu: The fictional version of his death nicely pits the Vokkaligas against the Muslims—and plays into the plan of consolidating them into a larger “Hindu” vote.
Will it work? Not many think so. Frontline spoke to Vokkaliga farmers who remain sceptical—as are political analysts:
All this will have an impact only on a small section of Vokkaligas who I describe as ‘pant Vokkaligas’ (urban educated sections) and not on the ‘chaddi Vokkaligas’ (rural agriculturists). Rural Vokkaligas are more bothered about agricultural issues and for most of them, Deve Gowda is the patriarch of the community. Prominent Vokkaliga leaders of the BJP… are pant Vokkaligas and they don’t have a large following among the rural Vokkaligas.
But, but, but: By most accounts, the JD(S) hold on the Vokkaliga vote is weakening. These voters usually turn to the Congress—but the BJP sees an opportunity to make a dent.
The bottomline: Setting electoral politics aside, what do we know about Tipu Sultan? And is his reputation as a Hindu-hating bigot mere BJP propaganda or is it based in facts? We look at these thornier questions in part two.
Frontline has the best analysis of the Vokkaliga vote in Karnataka. The Print has more on why Tipu has resurfaced as an election issue. The News Minute looks at BJP’s love for Tipu in the past. Scroll lays out the BJP’s strategy of rewriting history to attract votes. The Wire explains why no party has ever won two elections in a row.