Myth and Reality of Tipu Sultan

In the midst of distorted writings, Surkhraj Kaur and S. Udayan look for the true essence of Tipu Sultan.

In the midst of distorted writings, Surkhraj Kaur and S. Udayan look for the true essence of Tipu Sultan.

There is probably no Indian ruler who has been slandered and distorted by British historians as much as Tipu Sultan, the ruler of Mysore in the late 18th century.  The myth has been created that Tipu was a bloodthirsty and ruthless tyrant, a Muslim bigot who destroyed Hindu temples and oppressed Christians.  Available documented evidence reveals that the reality is exactly opposite.

According to Wikipedia, “Sultan Fateh Ali Tipu, also known as the Tiger of Mysore (November 20, 1750, Devanahalli – May 4, 1799, Srirangapattana), was the first son of Haidar Ali by his second wife, Fatima or Fakhr-un-nissa … Tipu Sultan was a learned man and an able soldier. He was reputed to be a good poet. He was a devout Muslim but the majority of his subjects were Hindus. At the request of the French, he built a church, the first in Mysore …He helped his father Haidar Ali defeat the British in the Second Mysore War, and negotiated the Treaty of Mangalore with them. However, he was defeated in the Third Anglo-Mysore War and in the Fourth Anglo-Mysore War by the combined forces of the English East India Company, the Nizam of Hyderabad, the Mahratta Confederacy, and to a lesser extent, Travancore. Tipu Sultan died defending his capital Srirangapattana, on May 4, 1799.”

One may question the authenticity and reliability of Wikipdeia.  Fair enough!  But in this case, the above description is broadly in line with what the historical documents of the period have recorded.  There may be a few discrepancies, such as the fact that the Mahratta Confederacy was part of the British led alliance in the Third Anglo-Mysore War but not in the Fourth Anglo-Mysore War.  But the character description matches available evidence.  And his conscious martyrdom is an indisputable fact, no less heroic and inspiring than the martyrdom of Bhagat Singh.  Tipu died defending the state of Mysore, and its fort at Srirangapattinam, with sword in hand.

The following quotations from Tipu’s documented decrees, are illuminating and thought provoking:
“Looting a conquered enemy enriches a few, impoverishes the nation and dishonours the entire army.  Wars must be linked to battlefields.  Do not carry it to innocent civilians.  Honour their women, respect their religion and protect their children and the infirm” from Tipu Sultan’s decree in 1783, repeated in 1785, 1787 and possibly more often.

“To quarrel with our subjects is to war with ourselves.  They are our shield and our Buckler; and it is they who furnish us with all things.  Reserve the hostile strength of our Empire exclusively for its foreign enemies” – from Tipu’s Code of Law and Conduct, 1787.

“Agriculture is the life blood of the nation.  This land, rich and fertile, will reward those who work on it.  Famine and want are either the result of sloth and ignorance or of corruption.  The 127 Regulations of this Revenue Code are intended for your immediate implementation.  In particular, your urgent attention is drawn to the provisions which relate to cash advances to needy peasants for buying ploughs, steps for taking over derelict land and protection to the cultivator and his descendants.  … The Code is illustrative and not exhaustive.  For instance, one Amildar has decided that where peasants are convicted of certain minor offences as are only punishable by fines, such fines can be commuted if the person charged with the fine agrees to plant two mango and two almond trees in front of the village, and water and tend them till they are the height of three feet.  We approve of such measures. Thus, Amildars must rely on their ingenuity consistent with local conditions (but without ignoring the rights of the people) to stimulate agricultural growth.  Any measures so introduced should be reported so that consideration can be given to their incorporation in the Code as also to reward the Amildars concerned.” – from Tipu Sultan’s circular to all Amildars, 1788.

 “The Pharaos built the Pyramids with the labour of their slaves.  The entire route of the Great Wall of China is littered with the blood and bones of men and women forced to work under the whip and the lash of the slave drivers.  Countless millions were enslaved and chained, and thousands upon thousands bled and died to make it possible that the magnificent structures of Imperial Rome, Babylon, Greece and Carthage should be built. …

And what is the tradition of this proud land which we call Hindostan?  Its entire architecture, from the Taj Mahal of recent times to the ancient Sanchi Stupa of 2000 years ago, was built by free and devoted men.  … I mentioned this to you because I received a letter from the Governor of Malabar that in his province are excellent workmen whom he has put to work without payment on Government buildings.  Knowing of my project to extend the Darya Daulat palace, he has offered them to me.  To him I shall say that this Palace commissioned by my father with love shall not be sullied by labour forced from unwilling hands.  I shall also order that for all their past work on public buildings, those workmen shall be paid and that henceforth none in my kingdom shall permit or order such forced labour.” – from Tipu Sultan’s address to the Council of Ministers in 1789.

“Anyone who brings under cultivation any uncultivated land and grows crops, vegetables or fruits by irrigating it with water from this dam will be given all encouragement and concessions by the Khudadad Government … the newly cultivated land shall belong to the cultivator and his descendants … and no one shall dispossess him …” – from Inscription on the foundation stone laid by Tipu Sultan for the dam on the river Cauvery, 1790.

Tipu was educated by two renowned teachers from a very early age – Maulvi Obedullah and Goverdhan Pandit.  He studied both Hindu and Islamic scriptures and political treatises.  As a result, Tipu developed an unusually broad intellectual vision and a deep curiosity and thirst for knowledge from all over the globe.  He openly celebrated and officially saluted the victory of the American revolution against British colonialism, and its declaration of the ‘Rights of Man’.   

Tipu was one of those rare Indian rulers of the 18th century who refused to enter into any deals with the British East India Company against another Indian ruler.  The Nizam of Hyderabad allied with the British against Tipu, and even the Marathas were persuaded to do so in the Third Anglo-Mysore war.  But Tipu told the Marathas: you are not our enemy, our common enemy is the foreign invader and occupying force represented by the British East India Company.  The Marathas learned their lesson, and refused to join the last war waged by the Company against Mysore, which culminated in Tipu’s martyrdom.

Weakened after a joint assault by the British, in alliance with the Nizam and the Marathas, followed by a demeaning peace agreement that weakened Mysore, Tipu introduced policies of austerity by the elite, as part of regenerating productive activity and restoring living standards of the working population.  While winning over the hearts and minds of the majority of his people, Tipu seems to have lost the support of several members of his own ruling establishment.  While Tipu ordered them to cut down their consumption and adhere to more modest ways, the British offered them fat bribes in return for treachery. Treachery of his own officers brought about Tipu’s downfall in the end. 

He was called the Tiger of Mysore. He had the image of a tiger on his flag. Tipu’s Tiger, an automation representing a tiger attacking a European soldier, made for Tipu Sultan, is on display in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. During Tipu Sultan’s reign, a new calendar, new coinage, and seven new government departments were introduced, and several innovations in the use of rocket artillery.

At a certain stage in the final assault on Mysore, Tipu knew that defeat was certain.  Escaping from his fort was possible.  Yet he consciously chose to remain, thinking that his martyrdom would inspire others in the future to fight uncompromisingly against the British colonialists.  He was proved right by the Vellore rebels who took it upon themselves to rescue Tipu’s sons, who had been imprisoned by the British. Tipu’s example continued to inspire countless Indian patriots, in 1857 and later during the anti-colonial struggle. His story deserves to be told truthfully to all Indians, and included in school curricula. 


S. Udayan is a researcher and writer on political and economic issues.
Surkhraj Kaur is a student of History and a member of the Ghadar Jari Hai production team.


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