Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Tipu Sultan, Paper Tiger

Update: My review of the kindle book.

I just finished a first reading the Amazon Kindle edition of Indian scholar Sandeep Balakrishna's new historical book 'Tipu Sultan: The Tyrant of Mysore', published by RarePublications. The chapters in the book are covered in about 200 pages - relatively short in comparison with the bloated 'epics' written by India's eminent historians, but the beauty about simply stating the facts is that it does not require lengthy justification. It is what it is. The book is very economically priced, and is a steal for the treasure trove of data it provides us about the political and social landscape of 18th century South India. 'Tyrant of Mysore' is also available in hardcopy edition and the Android-compatible digital format via Google Play.  I found the Kindle edition more convenient since one can read it using a dedicated Kindle reader, or simply using Amazon's Kindle-app or their cloud reader on a web-browser, in large font.

Note: This post is simply a collage of thoughts after an initial reading of the book, jotted down in no strict order.

Take a few seconds to examine the book cover. It has a popular portrait of Tipu, captioned using an Arabic-like font, a blood-tipped sword in the darkness, and a leg in weighed-down chains. A first glimpse of the person hidden behind the fabrication.

A forceful and insightful foreword by Shatavadhani Dr. R. Ganesh sets the stage for Sandeep to let us rediscover for ourselves, the events that occurred more than two hundred years ago in South India, and comprehend the magnitude of the disaster that befell the dharmic peoples who came under Tipu's demonic shadow. The real story of Tipu was one waiting to be told. Indeed, as Sandeep himself says, there are plenty of primary sources that talk about the real Tipu, yet it is curious that no 'big' Indian historian has come forward to do the job of stating the facts for what it is. The reasons for this situation become apparent when we read about how SL Bhyrappa was sidelined by Government officials in India's education department for wanting to simply state the facts about other despots of India like Aurangazeb (the person who murdered at least 4.6 Million Hindus: New York Times). The book exposes prior fictional works, notably Bhagwan Gidwani's 'Sword of Tipu Sultan', and Girish Karnad's 'Dreams of Tipu Sultan', for what they self-admittedly are: commercial scripts of fiction, which have little correlation with the actual events that transpired. Rather, these works come across as using the standard "secularist" template adopted by Indian Marxist intellectuals ("Sepoys" as Rajiv Malhotra so aptly describes them) to create a false equivalence in the Indian discourse. Luckily for us, Sandeep has no agenda, and simply presents the facts tracked down meticulously from multiple primary sources, including the English translations of Tipu's own Farsi words; the letters he wrote, the orders he gave, the places his armies travelled to, the kings he fought, the deals he struck, the administrative methods he used - all speak clearly of a person who is entirely different from that manufactured in the aforementioned dramatizations.

Tipu's story starts with his father Hyder Ali, an opportunist soldier of fortune,  who rode his luck to become the ruler of Mysore. In this path, one finds violence and death - the description of the decimation of Chitradurga stands out. Hyder Ali who also gets to bask in Tipu's halo in popular dramatizations turns out to nothing more than a bandit who had the will and the luck to take advantage of political chaos to achieve his ends. As the reign of Hyder Ali comes to an end, we see a young and frightened Tipu, running away from battle, and being flogged by his dad. Evidence suggests that Hyder understood his son's incompetent, and somewhat unhinged personality quite early, and never entrusted him with serious responsibility. In reality, there seem to be few, if any, redeeming qualities in Tipu's personality - quite the opposite of what you get to read in his Wikipedia entry. Here, we read of a Tipu with a zeal for Islam, and his self-expressed need to impose it on a land that he considered to be full of infidels. The British soldiers were clearly referred to as 'Christians', and towards the end of his reign, the French soliders were also characterized in the same way in his letters. It is crystal clear in Tipu's mind at least that his fight was for his prophet and his exclusive brand of monotheism, not for liberty or as a dharma-yudh. It mattered little who his foes were. Brave opponents who offered heroic resistance were treated most cruelly. Gruesome torture, as one can expect, was used routinely to keep the civilian population frozen in terror.  The mass slaughter, the genital mutilation and conversions, and savage violence in the Malabar, and in the Coorg area, is a pattern that we find being repeated wherever Tipu goes. 8000 temples destroyed. Hundreds of thousands of innocent Hindus were converted, maimed or killed. All this in just seventeen years.  A small sample of the facts from the book encapsulated in tweets:

Large sections of the book are in the form of an annotated bibliography of primary sources (and their English translations), where you have Tipu pretty much tell his own story: he was neither freedom fighter nor secular hero; neither a brave 'tiger', nor a lover of languages and literature (it is heartbreaking to read how he burnt the entire collection of rare and precious Indian manuscripts and inscriptions in the Mysore palace library as fuel to boil gram for his horses). Some of his bizarre actions bear resemblance to another crazy despot - Mohammed Bin Tuglaq. In short, Tipu's fanatical loyalty was to his religion (as inscribed on his tombstone). He fought the British, but also many Indian kings and rulers, to gain more territory, slay the unbelievers or convert them, and of course, for loot. As you read through the book, the reader may be tempted to root for the armies of the despicable East India Company that finally put him out of his misery, such was the savagery of Tipu.  Near Bengaluru in Nandidurga (Nandi Hills), you can find this place depicted below, known as Tipu's drop. He followed a barbaric practice of having enemies thrown off the precipice. Tipu's real legacy, set in stone.


Tipu only brought ruin to the region he ruled. After knowing these facts, it is quite unlikely that any sensible Indian citizen today, of any religion, will relate to, or even care to associate with Tipu's fanaticism and violent methods. Now that would be a true and lasting victory for India's 'secularism'.

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