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An Icon Besmirched

The Bajrang Dal and VHP now paint Tipu Sultan as a villain

An Icon Besmirched

Tipu Sultan’s was a story of an intrepid ruler’s fierce fight against imperialism. The Tiger of Mysore struggled to scuttle the British plan to move into the South Indian peninsula. For 17 years, he fought heroically against the encroaching white giant until he was betrayed—by his own men, on May 4, 1799. So he ought to be hailed on the bicentennial of his martyrdom, right?

Wrong, say leaders of the Bajrang Dal and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. Tipu, they say, was a tyrannical despot and a religious bigot who oppressed his Hindu subjects and forced them to convert to Islam. They vow to disrupt the state-sponsored celebrations to mark 200 years of Tipu’s martyrdom. Says Harave Keshava Murthy, organising secretary of the Bajrang Dal unit in Mysore: "Celebrations for a pusillanimous soldier like Tipu, a hater of Hindus, is a waste of money and time. He doesn’t deserve such glorification. On May 15 (when the celebrations are scheduled to begin), our action will be swift and sudden." The vhp agrees. "Historical documents record instances of proselytisation of Hindus during his reign," say leaders of the vhp state unit.

Tension is palpable at Srirangapatnam and elsewhere. Signs of the intolerance of local bjp leaders surfaced after Samudaya, a Marxist theatre group, was attacked at Anekal, near Bangalore, while staging a street play, Kesari, Bili, Hasiru (Saffron, White, Green), on May Day. The local police downplays it, saying it was due to mistaken identity triggered by differences between two trade unions of a local factory.

But people like Jnanpith winner Girish Karnad, who led artistes at a demonstration against the attack, are livid. "We used to pride ourselves on tolerance, but this is now spreading like an epidemic. There is no doubt who attacked the troupe; Nagaraj, a bjp councillor, who was arrested and released by the police," says he. The premiere of his latest play Tipuvina Kanasugalu (Tipu’s Dreams) figures in the list of programmes the state government has drawn up for the year-long celebrations. Other events include a bravery award in Tipu’s name, a tower of glory at Bangalore, a son et lumiere at the Gumbaz-e-Ala at Srirangapatnam, and but naturally, a website on Tipu.

Adding to the mess is the Janata Dal, which cannot seem to unite even on this issue. The government first planned to kick off on May 4, then put off the launch to May 15. Chief minister J.H. Patel says Dal leaders were trying to clip the wings of tourism minister Roshan Baig, who apparently packed every bicentennial committee with his supporters. Deputy chief minister Siddaramaiah now holds sway over a new set of panels.

The police have other worries. "The Bajrang Dal has supposedly planned an anti-Tipu demonstration on Saturday, so we are taking steps to prevent an agitation at Srirangapatnam," says dgp T. Srinivasulu.

Prominent Muslims have registered their protest against accusations of Tipu being a religious bigot. One such is Mohd Moienuddin, chairman of the Tipu Sultan Research Institute and Museum and author of Sunset at Srirangapatnam, to be published shortly by Orient Longman Ltd. "Don’t isolate Tipu on conversion. We must understand him as a person, and as a ruler. He was harsh on the Nairs of Malabar and Coorgis because he disapproved of polyandry. He punished the Kanara Christians (of Mangalore) because he believed they aided the British in a ploy to overthrow him. Why, he didn’t spare the Muslim Mahdevis because he sensed they were hand in glove with the British. " Besides, says Moienuddin, "there’s nothing like conversion in Indian history. Social reformers have helped spiritual liberation. This has happened from the days of Emperor Ashoka and Chandra Gupta Maurya."

Others like Mohibbul Hasan, author of The History of Tipu Sultan, cite Tipu’s land grants to several temples, including the one at Guruvayur, to extol his virtues of religious tolerance. In 1791, when a roving band of Maratha horsemen under Raghunath Rao Patwardhan raided Sringeri, the peetham set up by Shankaracharya, Tipu ordered his Asaf nearby to supply money, grains and other articles needed for reconstruction of the monastery as also the idol of Goddess Sharada. Another time, he requested the archbishop of Goa for Catholic priests for the Mysore Christians, who Tipu felt were neglecting their religious duties.

The protests by Bajrang Dal and vhp, perhaps, could be confined to Srirangapatnam on May 15. For, these outfits do not have the approval of leaders from New Delhi, and the bjp is wary of tainting its image at a time when elections are only a couple of months away.

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