Explained: Tipu in Malabar — Layered perspectives on a complex personality

Vishnu Varma
Tipu has been judged favourably in the mainstream narrative of Indian history.

The move by the BJP government in Karnataka last week to erase history lessons on Tipu Sultan from school textbooks resurrects the debate over how the 18th-century Mysore ruler should be remembered by posterity.

As an efficient administrator and a powerful challenger to the British East India Company who died heroically on the battlefield, Tipu has been judged favourably in the mainstream narrative of Indian history. However, his treatment of people belonging to other faiths, and the atrocities his armies often inflicted on the people of territories he conquered or annexed -- such as Malabar in present-day Kerala and Kodagu in Karnataka -- constitute a compelling counternarrative that has long had significant traction.

The competing narratives of Tipu have been read into present-day communal faultlines, and exploited for political reasons by both the BJP and the Congress. After coming to power in Karnataka in 2013, the Congress started celebrating 'Tipu Jayanti' on his birthday hailing him as a "freedom fighter", while the BJP and Sangh Parivar sought to magnify the image of Tipu as an anti-Hindu Muslim ruler who presided over the destruction and plunder of temples and large-scale forced conversion of Hindus.

Explained: How to read Tipu Sultan’s place in history

Tipu Sultan in Malabar

Malabar -- present-day northern Kerala -- is one of the places where popular opinion does not see Tipu favourably. The Kerala coastline with access to multiple ports, and its flourishing spice and timber cultivation, had long been on the radar of the rulers of Mysore.

In 1766, Hyder Ali, Tipu’s father, marched into Malabar with a large force after the Muslim raja of Cannanore promised him support to overthrow the neighbouring Kolathiri (king) and eventually, the Zamorin of Calicut. Within a short time, Mysore's superior forces were able to crush the weak resistance put up by the fractured little kingdoms of Malabar.

Over the following decade, the kingdom of Cochin also came under Mysore's rule, even though Hyder and Tipu’s dreams of vanquishing Travancore in the south of Kerala remained unfulfilled.

Also read | Tipu Sultan, the Tiger of Mysore, has stirred a row, again

For the sake of power

According to MGS Narayanan, one of Kerala’s foremost historians and political commentators, Tipu was very much a "conqueror" who looked to annex as many territories as possible. "He had his eye on the Kerala coast because that was his path to reach out to other kingdoms and countries. To have strong trade links, you need to have control of the coast," Narayanan told The Indian Express over the phone from Kozhikode. "He waged wars in his hunt for power."

As Tipu's armies swept south, powered by modern techniques of war including rockets, he allowed the untrammelled plunder of temples and churches, imposed hefty taxes on locals, ordered religious conversions of those whom he subjugated, and disregarded local customs of upper-caste Hindu communities. Many of these excesses have been documented in both Indian and British accounts, albeit possibly with some degree of exaggeration.

He was not a 'nationalist'

"Tipu was efficient as a war-strategist. He was a good administrator, no doubt. But it’s illogical to paint him as a nationalist hero or an inspiring freedom-fighter. There are a lot of accounts of him showing incomparable cruelty to the people of territories he annexed. To say that he was tolerant or that he was a dignified man is absolutely wrong,” said M G Sasibhooshan, a historian who has written extensively about the culture and customs of Kerala.

"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," Sasibhooshan added.

But he wasn't always 'anti-Hindu'

At the same time, there’s substantial evidence of Tipu according selective treatment to people of other faiths who favoured him and his actions. Several soldiers and local chieftains belonging to the upper-caste Nair community found a place in his army, and were rewarded with land pouches.

There are also Inam (gift) registers in the archives in Kozhikode, which document Tipu signing off on large land grants to several temples, including the famous Krishna shrine at Guruvayoor. Similarly, land belonging to several temples in the region were returned by Tipu when he came to know that they were annexed as part of his conquests.

Agent of social change, empowerment

A section of historians say that his reign swept in rapid social and economic improvements in Malabar, and tossed aside existing class and caste hierarchies, a point seldom discussed in popular culture. The direct rule of Mysore was marked by extensive land reforms, due to which local landless Muslims and lower-caste Hindus benefited the most.

Tipu’s rule is said to have brought instant relief to communities who had suffered tremendously under the yoke of upper-caste Namboodiris and Nairs, who owned much of the land at the time.

"It was during Hyder Ali’s rule that land surveys first began to be conducted in Malabar. Until then, the state had no direct control over land. There was no revenue system. During the rule of the Mysore kings, landlords were asked how much land they possessed, and told to pay revenue to the state. So naturally, they (upper-caste Hindu landlords) were upset," said M P Mujeebu Rahman, professor of history at the University of Calicut.

J Devika, historian-researcher at the Centre for Development Studies in Thiruvananthapuram, concurred. The popular narratives, she said, “completely ignore the fact that Tipu empowered a different group in Malabar. It was not the elite Muslim. He empowered the poor Muslim share-croppers who were hugely exploited by the Hindu elite. They were actually empowered by him with land grants.”

Definitions are misleading

When such multiple shades of a historical figure exist, it becomes difficult to label him, especially in polarising times. Was Tipu a nationalist hero? Was he a freedom fighter? Or was he a tyrant?

Historians like Devika believe there’s no need to "define" Tipu Sultan. “Tipu was as bound to his historical context as any of us. The choices he made were in response to those,” she said.

“The difference between historical scholars who are not partisan, and those who seek to use the past for narrow goals of the present, is that in one case, you accept that a ruler was a complex being whose choices were determined by his circumstances, while in the other, you make use of historical personalities by painting them black or white."