Any opinion on the rule of Tipu Sultan in Mysore will be incomplete without mention of the political situation prevailing in and around Mysore towards the end of the 18th century. Mysore, which had emerged from the ruins of the Vijayanagara empire, was moulded into a small but dynamic Hindu state primarily during the rule of Chikka Devaraja Wodeyar in the early decades of the 18th century.
The Wodeyar kings, who had been ruling Mysore for over 300 years, were only nominal rulers by then and the actual power was wielded by their prime ministers, or ‘dalavai’.
Tipu’s father, Haider Ali began his career in Mysore around 1749 as a soldier under one of these powerful ministers. He used his tact and bravery to stave off Maratha raids into Mysore, fought against the British and expanded Mysore’s territory down south to the coast of wealthy Calicut. He thus eased himself into the title of the ‘sarvadhikari’ or ‘regent of the kingdom’ in 1760. After Haider’s death in 1782, Tipu took over his father’s position, keeping the Wodeyar king as a proxy but publicly continuing to put on a show of respect. Tipu’s appropriation of this position would not have been possible without the assistance of some of Haider’s closest friends and advisors as well as the acquiescence of the local populace, who had by then come to see a stronger and more prosperous Mysore under Haider and the young Tipu.
Giving the English a fright
From Madras, the British were cautiously observing the rise of Mysore and resented Haider’s and Tipu’s push into Malabar. A 17-year-old Tipu had given the British a fright by galloping with his army into the East India Company’s garden house near the beach in Madras. He rattled them so much that the governor there fled offshore in a small boat. A series of four Anglo-Mysore wars started in 1767. These propelled the hitherto unknown Kingdom of Mysore into the powder rooms of Europe and America.
The first war saw Mysore dictating terms to England at the gates of Madras; the second war was Tipu’s brightest moment. At the battle of Pollilur (1780), the sun-and-tiger-stripes banner of Tipu’s Mysore oversaw the worst disaster that ever befell an English army in India. Out of 3,000 men in the British army, only about 400 survived.
With these two victories the mood in England began to change and a vicious propaganda and diplomatic campaign against Mysore began.
By 1785, one in seven Englishmen in India was imprisoned by Tipu. By this time, the British had won in Plassey and Buxar; the whole of India except the Punjab and the Marathas had capitulated to them. Tipu’s Mysore stood as a bulwark against the British. What rankled the British even more was that here was a native ruler — or ‘despot’, as they branded all of them — who was different from the others. He did not while away his time in pleasure orgies, nor leave the management of state to some palace coterie; and not once did he ask the British for help against his neighbours. He created an army which, in the words of his nemesis Arthur Wellesley (later Duke of Wellington), was “the best fighting force in the whole of India”.
He took advantage of the enmities being played out in Europe, recruited the French as willing allies and drilled his army in modern European manoeuvres.
Mysore was the first state to demonstrate the efficacy of rockets in war by modifying what was until then a mere firecracker into something that could carry a sword or wooden blade with it. Tipu even sent back French weapons with a letter stating they were substandard compared to the ones in his arsenal.
Working almost 18 hours a day, he kept meticulous records of revenue and personnel across his kingdom. He created a set of revenue regulations that rationalised land taxes and even offered subsidies to farmers if they farmed more land. Landowners and temple trusts with excess landholding were asked to hand it over to landless or tenant farmers. He created a navy that sent ships with his diplomats to meet the Ottoman sultan in Constantinople and the French emperor in Paris. An elite group of Brahmin civil servants was nurtured during his early rule to make sure that revenue was properly collected. His forts were among the strongest in south India and his currency so beautifully minted that the Mughal Emperor felt slighted at receiving coins more beautiful than his own. He even minted coins with Hindu deities on them. Even in the midst of war he wrote of receiving silkworms to create the silk factories of Mysore. Sugar and paper factories were established for the first time under him. Sword blades and gunpowder were manufactured locally. He was also liberal with gifts to Hindu religious establishments in Mysore, and Malabar after subduing it.
Troubles in Mysore
The third Anglo-Mysore war in 1792, with Cornwallis at the helm of the British army, did not go well for Tipu. He was hard-pressed by the British-Maratha-Nizam allied powers to surrender half his kingdom, submit to a war indemnity of ₹3.3 crore and deliver two of his sons as hostages to the British. Thanks to his financial prudence, he managed to pay the British their ransom and have his sons released a year earlier than the stipulated three years. This period between 1792 and the fourth Mysore war in 1799 was one of great tribulation for Mysore. Rebellions raged and finances were tight on account of the indemnity paid. However it is to Tipu’s credit that not once during his rule, in the midst of almost incessant war, did his subjects suffer from famine or pestilence. At the same time in British Bengal, millions of Indians perished in a famine.
The flip side
But Tipu has another side, which not only plagues his legacy but, in my opinion, also hastened his downfall. Tipu called his kingdom ‘sarkar-e-khudadad’ or ‘god-given government’. He envisioned Mysore along the lines of a benevolent Islamic state, not a theocratic one but where the tenets of Islam would be followed. This line of thinking, along with his tenets of administration, meant Muslim subjects were shown undue favour in government positions.
The largely Brahmin clerical cadre that worked hard to fulfil Haider Ali’s dream of creating a successor to the mighty Vijayanagara started to be sidelined and divested of posts to accommodate Muslims. Persian was made compulsory in the Srirangapatna court even though Kannada was also retained at all secondary levels. Discrimination permeated even state-paid jobs such as those of wood-cutters. Muslim householders paid less taxes compared to Hindus. Campaigns in Malabar and Coorg were called, in Tipu’s own words, ‘jihad’ and prisoners taken in battle converted en masse to Islam.
One may argue that those times were different and Tipu only did it to ensure more Muslim participation in Mysore’s government, which until then was reserved only for certain Hindu communities, or that the conversions happened outside of Mysore in Malabar and Coorg and only in cases of treason. But one would expect that for someone with his modern worldview, Tipu would inculcate a similar modernity in his religious thought. It was, after all, the age of Enlightenment. Tipu’s friend and contemporary Napoleon had already emancipated the French Jews at the risk of discord with the church.
Tipu’s legacy to us can only be understood if we are ready to discuss him honestly. The present outcry over his birth anniversary celebrations was only a reaction to government intentions that may not have been above-board. That being said, it must not be lost upon us that Tipu was a symbol of exemplary bravery and strove to bring together the Marathas and Nizam against the British, who — he alone among Indian kings understood — were here not for trade alone but to expand their empire. Also, Tipu’s fiscal prudence was far ahead of his time and worthy of admiration and emulation. However, we must also admit that his adamant attitude and pursuance of imprudent religious policies played a part in depriving Mysore of its independence.