(This story has been reposted from The Quint’s archives to mark the death anniversary of Tipu Sultan. It was first published on 7 November 2019)
At the reception lobby of NASA’s sounding rocket facility, a painting caught the attention of APJ Abdul Kalam, then a young Indian aerospace scientist from India. It depicted one of the first usage of the rocket in a battlefield but what intrigued Kalam the most was the man behind these rockets – Tipu Sultan.
So fascinated was he by the sight of Tipu Sultan at NASA that on becoming the President of India, he ordered a study into Tipu Sultan’s use of rocket technology. He even made a lengthy mention of the Indian ruler in his book The Wings of Fire.
But the BJP in Karnataka doesn’t share this fascination.
Leave alone rocket science, school kids in Karnataka may not know Tipu Sultan at all as the BJP bats for wiping him out from History textbooks.
Kalam’s Discovery of Tipu Sultan
Tipu Sultan’s story might be erased from the pages of History textbooks soon but when Kalam discovered the Mysore ruler’s story six decades ago, he felt it was a forgotten piece of Indian history his countrymen should know about.
"“… the painting caught my eye because the soldiers on the side launching the rockets were not white but were dark skinned, with racial features found in South Asia. It turned out to be Tipu Sultan’s army fighting the British. The painting depicted a fact forgotten in Tipu’s own country but commemorated here on the other side of the planet.” " - APJ Abdul Kalam in The Wings of FireTipu Sultan and His Rocket Troops
Mysore rockets, developed and deployed by Tipu Sultan’s army during the Anglo-Mysore wars, were one of the first weaponised metal rockets. The advancing British East India company forces were tackled by Mysore army using several rounds of rocket fire, in the battle of Pollilur during the first Anglo-Mysore war in 1780.
Even though the Chinese had experimented with rockets using bamboo, the effective weaponisation of the rockets is credited to Tipu Sultan and his army. The replacement of bamboo with metal and some other key design changes in the late 1700s in Mysore are considered a turning point in rocket technology.
‘With Tipu’s Death, Indian Rocketry Met Its Demise’
Later in the book, Kalam makes a crucial statement about how important Tipu was to the development of rockets. “When Tipu Sultan was killed, the British captured more than 700 rockets and subsystems of 900 rockets in the battle of Turukhanahally in 1799 ... these rockets had been taken to England by William Congreve and were subjected by the British to what we call ‘reverse engineering’ today. There were, of course, no GATT, IPR Act, or patent regime. With the death of Tipu, Indian rocketry also met its demise – at least for 150 years,” writes Kalam.
The Study Ordered by Kalam
After becoming President, in 2006, Kalam sent a top Defence scientist to Srirangapatana in Karnataka to study Tipu Sultan’s efforts to use rockets against the British over 200 years previously.
At the end of his visit to various sites associated with Tipu Sultan’s rocket launching activities at Srirangapatna, then Chief Controller of Research and Development at Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), A Sivathanu Pillai declared, “There is no doubt that this is the birthplace of rocketry.”
“Now, I will report to the President what I have seen here (Srirangapatna). He (Kalam) is a rocket scientist. Naturally, he is interested to know,” Pillai had said.
After this visit, Pillai said he would recommend President Kalam to build consensus in the community of rocket scientists that Srirangapatna was the birthplace of rocketry by holding seminars and other initiatives.
But the Former President’s attempt to tell Tipu’s story to Indians may remain incomplete as electoral politics now threatens to erase his story from history.
(With inputs from PTI)
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