In part one, we looked at how Tipu Sultan has become a handy bogeyman for the BJP to target specific voting blocs. But is their view of Tipu Sultan based on fact or fiction? Was he a ruthless bigot or a powerful ruler who embraced modernity—outdoing even the English? Or was Tipu just a politician—albeit of the blood-soaked variety? We look at the many Tipus revealed by history.
First up: Tipu the Butcher
Yes, rulers must be judged in their historical context. But none of these niceties can erase the facts of Tipu’s campaign of conquest—especially in Kerala. Of his many triumphs, the most infamous is his rule over Malabar—a prosperous principality with access to a long coastline and a share in the lucrative trade of spices.
The plunder of Kerala: As his armies swept across the principalities, they plundered temples and churches—and indiscriminately punished the locals. A Kerala historian says:
There are accounts of Tipu stabbing those who stood in his way of plundering temples and displaying their tortured bodies. Temples in those days, naturally, were repositories of wealth. And when you loot temples, you naturally hurt the sentiments of the Hindus. War in those days was not dignified at all. Women were raped. Those who surrendered were treated harshly.
These horrific accounts have been confirmed over and again by historians across the board. This is what William Dalrymple writes, for instance:
He routinely and brutally converted to Islam captive enemy combatants and internal rebels, both Hindu and Christian, Indian and British, frequently destroying the temples and churches of those he conquered. He did this on a particularly horrific scale in Malabar, Mangalore and Coorg. Portuguese missionaries wrote that “he 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.”
A ‘foreign’ bigot? It is true that Tipu positioned himself as a true believer—in an attempt to seek legitimacy. He had to overcome the handicap of his humble roots. His father, Hyder Ali, rose through the military ranks under the Wodeyar royal family. Since his Muslim peers were not willing to grant him respectability, he turned towards Turkey:
For a parvenu such as Tipu, it was important to be seen as a legitimate padshah . Since he failed to get this legitimacy from the Mughals or his neighbours (the Nizam of Hyderabad even refused to marry his daughter to Tipu’s son, citing his low social status), Tipu reached out to monarchs like the Ottoman Sultan, who still was the Caliph of Islam. In his contacts with Turkey, he was reaching out to a higher authority than even the Mughals.
And in his letters to Muslims abroad—be it Zaman Shah of Kabul or the Ottoman Sultan—Tipu portrayed himself as a Muslim ghazi, intent on kafir conversion. And he replaced Kannada with Persian as the court language.
More than just expedience: There is no doubt that Tipu saw himself as a Muslim ruler—reigning over a predominantly Hindu population. And he freely imposed his narrow moral values over his subjects—in the name of reform:
For instance, he was appalled when he found out that Nair women cohabited with several men. He was also disgusted by the practice of lower caste women not being permitted to cover their breasts. Tipu forbade these practices, which was resented by the Nairs, who saw this as an encroachment on their religious and social rights.
But, but, but: Historians such as KM Panikkar argue that Tipu was not motivated by Islamic fervour but reformist zeal:
He was firmly convinced that in asking the Nairs to give up what he called their obscene habits, he was undertaking a mission of civilisation. It is the narrow reformer’s mind, anxious for the moral and material welfare of the people, and not the fanaticism of the bigot desirous of converting the Kafir, that speaks in his proclamation.
Of course, from the perspective of the Nairs, this is just splitting hairs.
Next up: Tipu the Great
Until the BJP changed its mind in 2015 (see part one), Tipu Sultan was routinely valourised as a great Indian hero—who fought four fierce battles against the East India Company. That characterisation is based on some version of the truth—though Tipu never saw himself as a ‘nationalist’.
Britain’s great nemesis: Love him or loathe him, Tipu was the first to recognise the immense danger posed by the East India Company—and they had no harsher enemy in India. OTOH, Marathas and the Nizam of Hyderabad fought alongside the English to defeat Tipu. As Dalrymple writes:
[I]t is not far-fetched to see him as a brave proto-nationalist. For while it is true that modern ideas of nationalism and patriotism were only in their infancy, he nonetheless firmly identified the British as dangerous outsiders and there is no question he did more than any other ruler of the time to stop them taking over the country.
Tipu, the moderniser: Indians can also take justifiable pride in Tipu’s determination to embrace the newest and best practices—borrowing from the West, and often outdoing it. For instance, the ‘Mysore rockets’ (see lead image)—which were far more advanced than the kind used by the English. In fact, the English would borrow the technology and use it to defeat Napoleon at Waterloo except by then they were called the Congreve rockets—allegedly invented by Sir William Congreve. As Girish Karnad once dryly observed:
Tipu nationalised the sale of sandalwood and brought in silkworm farming. He learnt how to improve the economy from the British and implemented it in his kingdom. Had he been Hindu he would have been worshipped as the man who made the state.
Tipu, the great reformer: Seen from the lens of the upper castes in Kerala—the Nairs and the Namboodiris—Tipu’s rule was undoubtedly a calamity. But his anti-feudal land reforms also freed lower caste Hindu farmers from the clutches of this land-owning elite:
The “jenmis” (landed aristocracy) were the absolute owners of land with the tiller having no claims. The Mysorean rulers shook up this system and settled land revenue claims directly with the tiller. In this way, Hyder and Tipu can be seen as early reformers in land administration.
Irony alert: As we noted in part one, the BJP is using Tipu to pit the powerful Vokkaliga community against Muslims—to win the Karnataka election. But the Vokkaligas are among the agrarian castes that rose due to Tipu’s revolutionary land reforms—and have great affection for him even today.
Tipu, the secularist: For every story of conversion and brutal killings, there is a counter-example of Tipu’s generosity toward Hindus. For example, when the Marathas invaded Mysore, they looted the Sringeri Math in 1791:
The invaders had mercilessly sacked the complex, stealing over Rs 60 lakh of offerings, including the temple vessels and other valuables. But it was not just a matter of looting and plunder— the raiders had deliberately violated the sanctum sanctorum. The idol of the presiding deity, Sarada, had been desecrated and pulled out of its socket.
The Swami of Sringeri Math wrote a desperate letter to his ruler Tipu seeking help. He replied:
People who have sinned against such a holy place are sure to suffer the consequences of their misdeeds. In accordance with the verse, Hasadbhih kriyate karma rudabhih anubhuyate, those who commit evil deeds smiling, will reap the consequences weeping. Treachery to gurus will undoubtedly result in the destruction of the line of descent.
This was not an isolated incident. Tipu also donated generously to the Sri Ranganatha temple in Mysore and “even ordered the installation of a jade linga, Shiva idol at the Nanjundeshwara temple at Nanjangud.” And financial records show that he routinely gave inams (rewards) to temples in Malabar—the scene of his greatest atrocities.
Quirky fact to note: Tipu often saw Hindu deities in his dreams—which he diligently recorded in his dream book: “[I]n one dream sequence, which he saw on November 16 1798, there are references to him encountering in a ruined temple idols whose eyes moved: one talked to him, and as a result, Tipu ordered the temple rebuilt.”
Finally: Tipu, the politician
Historians who support Tipu argue that he needs to be understood in the context of his times—and not be judged by modern notions of either secularism or tyranny. In essence, Tipu was kind to those who supported his reign—Hindus and Muslims—and unforgiving toward anyone who challenged his rule. The violence targeting temples and Hindus “was not a religious policy but one of chastisement.”
In that sense, Tipu was no different than any politician today—tailoring his methods and message to each audience. As Manu Pillai writes:
Where we are tempted to view religion as the prime governing factor for kings, typically, it was one of several elements that went into crafting kingship. Tipu certainly viewed himself as Muslim, but his kingly policy… entailed taking a flexible view when it came to defending other Muslims. Where convenient—as during the invasion of Malabar—he might employ fiery language against “infidels”, while all the same, to win legitimacy at home, he could be issuing instructions for the puja of “infidel” deities.
The bottomline: We leave you with this quote from historian Ramachandra Guha:
Even if this 18th-century figure was actually guilty of all the awful crimes Hindutva historians accuse him of, why should law-abiding Muslims in the 21st century be punished on that account? The weaponisation of history to persecute innocent citizens is antithetical to all norms of civilised behaviour.
For the strongest defences of Tipu, read The Wire and Scroll. William Dalrymple in Open Magazine pens a fantastic deep dive on Tipu. Frontline has two good essays—both sympathetic but not biased—on Tipu’s legacy and his rule over Malabar. For a more critical take, read this column in The Diplomat.