Tipu Sultan Fath Ali Khan, the self-styled ruler of Mysore, confronted the forces of the British East India Company and was eventually killed in the battle of Srirangapatan on 4 May 1799. Since his death his historical persona has undergone numerous interpretations and the various assessments of his character and policy have been sharply polarized. His British contemporaries and adversaries saw him as a fanatical tyrant, though a very courageous fighter. Postcolonial historians of India and a number of Western historians provide a radically opposite profile of the man: an enlightened champion of freedom, a progressive and nationalist fighter, far in advance of his time. These scholars debunk all contemporary accounts (mostly by writers who had firsthand knowledge of Tipu and his regime) as biased, imperialistic, or racist and thus unreliable. This essay—actually a snapshot of a larger article—seeks to provide a balanced, reasonable, and realistic evaluation of Tipu Sultan the man and the statesman.
Postcolonial/postmodernist scholarship seeks to present the Sultan as a brave nationalist hero whose multiple projects of modernization and militarization of his region posed a deadly challenge to the British imperialists but who fell a victim to the grand alliance forged by the British East India Company with Mysore’s adversaries, the Nizam of Hyderabad and the Mahratta Confederacy of west-central Mughal India. The imperialist history of the Anglo-Mysore confrontation constructed a demonology in which Tipu was portrayed as an oriental despot. Hence all our hitherto understanding of Tipu Sultan as bigot and despot has been biased and the academically beleaguered Indian must be seen in a new light liberated from the vicious straitjacket of colonial history.
Tipu’s encounter with the foreigners reveals that he was not against their presence in his domain; he actually wanted them to comply with his commands. He was willing to take the help of foreign powers such as the Turks, Afghans, and the French in order to expel the one he hated. He hated the British not because they were foreigners but because they were kafirs. He was no manninamaga [son of the soil] himself but a Muslim ruler from a migrant Arab tribe (Quraish) with facility in Persian and Urdu in a predominantly Canarese speaking Hindu territory forcibly acquired by his powerful father Haider Ali Khan.
Tipu’s measures and policies interpreted as modern and wholesome were meant to maintain his theocracy or khudadad sarkar, and even his military organization bore the religious title as ilahi or ahmadi, comprising chelas. His administrative financial organization rendered his khudadad sarkar an extractive government dedicated primarily to military development. In fact, Tipu’s Mysore was “the most simple and despotic monarchy in the world.”
Joseph Michaud writes that Tipu wanted his government to do his bidding without demur or dissent. Even his close friends had to adjust their opinion to his caprices. Tipu was thus surrounded by servile courtiers who praised all his plans and applauded all his fantasies. Yet he could not command their wholesale loyalty as they had no sense of national honour but were accustomed to switch loyalty to anyone promising a better prospect. This explains the treachery suffered by Tipu, from his dewans, the Muslim Mir Sadiq, the Hindu Purnaiya, and others.
Tipu Sultan’s sovereign consciousness was intimately connected with religion. He issued coins proclaiming the primacy of Islam. He had the khutba read in his name as sultan-I-din in place of the traditional reference to the Mughal emperor. Mir Hussein Kirmani points to the Sultan’s antipathy toward the Hindus in his order of 14 December 1788 to his army commander in Calicut to kill some 5000 of them by hanging. Two years later he boasted his Jihad against Calicut. Tipu commanded Mir Zainul Abedin Shustari, sipahdar [commander] of a kushoon brigade], to slaughter or imprison the inhabitants of Coorg, and then make both the dead and the survivors Muslims (that is, circumcised). His merciless massacre of the Hindus and Christians in Malabar has been graphically described by a testis oculis, the Portuguese traveler Fra Bartolemaco. Roderick Mackenzie commented bitterly on Tipu’s mayhem in Trinomaly in 1790. His ceremonial sword bears an inscription: “lightning for the destruction of the unbelievers.” Tipu destroyed three Hindu temples at Harihar, Srirangapatan, and Hospet. In the Tamil land and in Malabar, he earned the sobriquet of a Brahmin-killer and a despoiler of Hindu temples.
Tipu’s appointment of the Hindus to positions of trust and responsibility does not seem to follow any principle other than common sense or sheer necessity, as they were better educated and orderly than the Muslims. Admittedly, the Sultan sought blessings from the Guru of the Sringeri Math and asked him to deliver a letter to the Marathas soliciting their alliance. Similarly, Tipu’s correspondence with the Guru and the performance of elephant sacrifice on May 4, 1799 were inspired by the foreboding of doom and his desperate attempt to avert it.
With all his shortcomings, Tipu, for a brief period of time made his formidable presence felt in the declining days of the Mughal Empire. As Thomas Munro acknowledged, Tipu “possessed an energy of character unknown to eastern princes.” “He may have fallen short in wisdom and foresight,” concludes Dennys Forrest, “but never in courage, never in aspirations, never in his dream of a united, an independent, a prosperous Mysore.”