The Tiger of Mysore

May 07, 2023

O n the historic day of May 4, 1799, Tipu Sultan, the valiant warrior of the Indian subcontinent, made the ultimate sacrifice, battling against the ruthless colonial forces. He is undoubtedly an...

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n the historic day of May 4, 1799, Tipu Sultan, the valiant warrior of the Indian subcontinent, made the ultimate sacrifice, battling against the ruthless colonial forces. He is undoubtedly an emblem of freedom, a towering figure who deserves to be included in the pantheon of Pakistan’s founding fathers.

As a prominent leader who fearlessly fought on the battlefield, he wholeheartedly dedicated himself to the cause of freedom, selflessly and relentlessly striving to achieve it. It is imperative that we acknowledge and embrace the vision of such illustrious leaders, fostering and celebrating their legacy to inspire the future generations.

On every 4th of May, I recall London’s Victoria and Albert Museum that features a popular exhibit: a musical instrument shaped like a tiger devouring a European settler. This instrument reflects the anti-British sentiment of an important individual from South India who commissioned it. It signifies Tipu Sultan Fateh Ali Khan, also known as the Tiger of Mysore or Tipu Sahib, a significant figure in the Indian history.

The sight of Tipu Sultan’s sword and attire had an indescribable impact, evoking a sense of awe and reverence. It made one realise how insignificant and ephemeral individual existence and possessions are in the face of a noble and timeless objective that can inspire one to live on beyond one’s physical demise.

Tipu Sultan valiantly fought the British in the fourth Anglo-Mysore War, ultimately sacrificing his life on May 4, 1799, during the battle at Srirangapatna Fort. He fought relentlessly for freedom and refused to acquiesce to British overlords, even in the face of death. Tipu Sultan was not only a valiant warrior but also a passionate advocate of freedom. He was the first, and undoubtedly the most prominent martyr, who sacrificed his life in the fight against the oppressive colonial regime.

By standing up against the British and their expansionist policies, Tipu Sultan paved the way for the real war of independence, which had begun with his father, Haider Ali, in Mysore. The legacy of their heroic struggle continued to inspire generations of freedom fighters across India, culminating in the historic events of 1857 in Northern India and Delhi. It is, therefore, clear that Tipu Sultan’s contribution to the cause of Indian independence cannot be overstated.

The fall of the kingdom of Mysore on May 4 was a significant event in the Indian history, comparable to the British victory at Plassey in Bengal on June 23, 1757, or the fall of Delhi after the War of Independence in 1857. However, some argue that Tipu’s death and the fall of Srirangapatna have been “extensively mythologised”. Tipu Sultan must be credited for never yielding or compromising with the British. He resolutely fought against them, despite being aware of the inevitability of his defeat and the certainty of his demise. Rather than submitting to the British, he chose to embrace death. He didn’t strike a deal.

There is no denying that Tipu Sultan was one of the British Empire’s fiercest opponents. He is recognised in the British National Army Museum as one of the ten greatest enemy commanders they ever faced. As a military strategist, Tipu was at par with Napoleon Bonaparte, with whom he shared cordial relations. Both men suffered defeat at the hands of the same British General, Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley, the first duke of Wellington. Tipu Sultan was not only a great military strategist but also a visionary and innovative ruler.

Tipu Sultan was born on November 20, 1750 in Devanahalli, located about 33 kilometres north of present day Bangalore. He was named Fateh Ali after his grandfather Fatah Muhammad but was later given the sobriquet Tipu Sultan as a mark of respect after Tipu Mastan Aulia of Arcot. From a young age, Tipu received an education in various subjects, including Hindustani, Persian, Arabic, Kannada, Quran, Islamic jurisprudence, riding, shooting and fencing. Despite his early inclination towards sufism, his father Haider Ali insisted that he become a soldier and a leader of extraordinary merit.

Tipu’s passion for freedom was evident throughout his life. He fought relentlessly against the British, the Maratha confederacy and the Nizam of Hyderabad, who all posed a threat to his beloved Mysore. Even as he maintained an extended network of foreign trade relations with Sri Lanka, Oman, Afghanistan, France, Turkey and Iran, his priority remained the protection of his kingdom’s independence.

Under his leadership, the Mysore army became a school of military science for other Indian princes. In 1786, Tipu decided to build a navy comprising 20 battleships with 72 cannons and 20 frigates with 62 cannons. He also introduced new coinage, a calendar, and a system of weights and measures, largely based on the methods devised by French technicians.

Such innovations earned him the title of a modernist, with even the tree of liberty planted at the Srirangapatna fort in honour of the French revolutionaries.

Tipu’s legacy, however, has been clouded by biased British historiography, which branded him “a furious fanatic and an intolerant bigot.” This was not the case. Tipu was a visionary and innovative ruler, whose achievements in military strategy and innovation were unparalleled. He even introduced the world’s first war rocket. In the end, he embraced death rather than accepting the slavish acquiescence to the British overlords, a testament to his unwavering passion for freedom.

Col M Wilks and W Kirkpatrick levelled accusations against Tipu Sultan, claiming that he exiled 60,000 Kanarese Christians. However, it is important to note that these Christians allegedly assisted the English in their conquest of Mangalore during the Second Anglo-Mysore War. Conversely, he treated the Syrian Christians of his kingdom with utmost respect and encouraged Armenian merchants to settle in Mysore.

Moreover, Tipu Sultan was wrongly accused of forcing conversions. In 1913, an archival record was unearthed, containing 21 letters written by him to the Sringeri monastery, which proved that he was a patron of numerous Hindu temples. The reason for the extreme British animosity towards Tipu lay in the challenge he posed to the colonial power.

The princes of Rajputana had already surrendered and the Marathas quietly submitted to the British. Even the formidable Ranjit Singh, the Lion of the Punjab, made compromises. However, Tipu dared to confront the colonialists head-on. In essence, Tipu Sultan was a proud leader who refused to seek peace with the British by becoming their tributary, as the Nawabs of Awadh and Karnatic had done. It is this quality that makes him truly remarkable.

The writer is Professor in the faculty of Liberal Arts at the Beaconhouse National University, Lahore

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