Why Tipu’s diverse legacy echoes in Karnataka today - Hindustan Times
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Why Tipu’s diverse legacy echoes in Karnataka today

ByRam Ganesh Kamatham
Mar 25, 2023 09:47 PM IST

Tipu’s legacy is mired in false dichotomies – patriot versus tyrant, secular versus fanatic, nationalist versus usurper – and provides a convenient distraction and an incendiary strategy to frame electoral choices.

Tipu Sultan (1751-1799) is periodically resurrected in contemporary Karnataka’s politics, the latest iteration regarding the circumstances of his death. One reason for this is that the state-level political leadership lacks the imagination (or track record) to fight elections on governance and administrative achievements. Tipu’s legacy is mired in false dichotomies – patriot versus tyrant, secular versus fanatic, nationalist versus usurper – and provides a convenient distraction and an incendiary strategy to frame electoral choices. Another reason for this periodic storm in a teacup is that his legacy is truly enigmatic, and for a student of history, I offer three fascinating lessons to be learned.

Tipu’s legacy is mired in false dichotomies – patriot versus tyrant, secular versus fanatic, nationalist versus usurper – and provides a convenient distraction and an incendiary strategy to frame electoral choices. (Ministry of Defence via Wikimedia Commons) PREMIUM
Tipu’s legacy is mired in false dichotomies – patriot versus tyrant, secular versus fanatic, nationalist versus usurper – and provides a convenient distraction and an incendiary strategy to frame electoral choices. (Ministry of Defence via Wikimedia Commons)

First, Tipu’s legacy is characterised by technological innovation. Nowhere is this more evident than in the development and deployment of iron-cased rocketry. Archaeological discoveries of rocket caches and archival research in the last 10 years have shed new light on the state of knowledge extant in the subcontinent at the time. Rocketeers, attached to the Mysorean cavalry units, succeeded in swinging the course of the Battle of Pollilur (1780) in favour of Mysore. From colonial records, we know that these iron-cased rockets attracted the attention of the British for their superior performance during the Anglo-Mysore wars. These were subsequently reverse engineered by an English inventor, Congreve, at the start of the 19th century, and the improved rockets went on to play a role in the Napoleonic wars.

Archival records also indicate that iron-cased rockets featured in a naval bombardment near the Thane creek in 1733, by the Marathas. Here they were colloquially referred to as bān – arrows or sometimes fire-arrows. Bāns were a regular feature in the field inventory of armies, popping up in references throughout the 1750s and 1760s. The transition from lighter casing materials (bamboo or wood) to cast-iron marks a technological and tactical shift in the rocket’s role from a bān for signalling to bombardment. The increased performance from iron-casing also created the ability to deliver a payload (often a metal blade doubling as a stabilising stick) – so the shift from an unguided rocket to a solid-fuel missile is another step. The moment when this innovation occurred is an area for further research, and the answer lies somewhere within the interaction of Maratha-Mysore strategic cultures between the 1720s and 1780s.

Second, his legacy is characterised by numerous economic indicators of pre-colonial industrialisation. Noteworthy are the range of enterprises involved: Steel production and armaments manufactured in the kharkane (factory) mode; we see the historical antecedents for the state’s sericulture industry (Mysore silk) and the expansion on horticultural innovation (Lal Bagh); high levels of monetisation and incentives for artisanal guilds also accounted for Mysore’s legendary mercantilist successes. Artisanal guilds, with an eclectic mix of metallurgy, chemistry and ballistics, were a necessary condition for rocket manufacture. The artisanal guild (weavers, artists, wood workers, toymakers and commodity traders) as an economic unit exceeded a single caste-group, enjoying royal patronage. This suggests that the artisanal guilds were sites of early cosmopolitanism with a mix of caste-groups, and people from a variety of social strata. This challenges the romantic ideal of the self-contained village and the trope of an inert Asiatic mode of production.

Finally, Tipu’s legacy is in the debate on the ideals that underpin citizenship. At the founding of the Jacobin Club of Mysore in 1794, Tipu, by then the de facto sovereign of Mysore, declared himself “Citizen Tipu”. Historical records show that a “Tree of Liberty” was planted, and 500 rockets were fired to commemorate the occasion. Political realists might argue that Tipu was echoing the revolutionary sentiments of the Jacobins as a matter of necessity, based on his alliance with the French against the British. Or suggest that the Jacobin presence in Mysore was exaggerated by English propaganda meant to discredit Tipu. Idealists, however, might see in this event a decidedly anti-feudal quality to his exercise of sovereignty. This strand of libertarianism is certainly of the zeitgeist (the French revolution rejecting the old order), but it also anticipates the parliamentary debates on social egalitarianism, culminating in French revolution ideals being embedded into the Indian Constitution.

Far too much about Tipu has been derived from the third (1790-1792) and fourth (1798-1799) Anglo-Mysore Wars. These narratives constructed in the early 20th century, emphasised the humiliation of a people, indignities in the form of discriminatory legislation and taxation, deft annexation of territories, and religious strife, culminating in a 150-year drain of wealth from the subcontinent. There were excesses, crimes committed and tragedies. But surely, our collective imagination can differentiate between the injustices of the past, and the shared ideals we draw on for the future.

Ram Ganesh Kamatham is a playwright, researcher and consultant

The views expressed are personal

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