Tipou's Outlook Cost Him His Life

Itihaas
April, 26th, 1998 Akhilesh Mithal
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The conditioned reflexes established by the British prevail. Communal history will prevent the 4th of May from being celebrated as a most important day in the calendar of Indian history. It was on this day, in 1799, that Tippou Saheb, Sultan of Mysore died fighting for freedom defending his capital, Shrirangapattanam (Seringapatam).

After the most spirited resistance was quelled, the conquering general of the British rode to the palace and summoned the family. He announced that the hostilities were over. The Sultan could now emerge without any danger to his physical well-being.

He was told that the Sultan was not in the palace. Tippou, as usual, since the commencement of the siege of Seringapatam, had a light breakfast at dawn and rode out to the post at a high vantage point on the fort wall to keep an eye on the moves of the enemy. He had not returned since then.

Enquiries revealed that when the traitors, who had earlier blown up the magazine to render the artillery of the Mysore defendants toothless, surreptitiously opened the gate to let the British army in, Tippou rushed down to try to get his men and close the breach.

At the gates, heaps of dead bodies were found strewn all along the entrance. After much turning up of dead bodies lying on their faces, the search party found the body servant of the Sultan lying desperately wounded and about to breathe his last.

A gulp of water from a pouch revived him sufficiently for him to point out the spot where he had seen his master last use his scimitar. A sergeant of the invaders had come upon the unconscious and seemingly dead body of Tippou.

The jewelled armband (Baazoubund) glittered its diamonds and rubies at the looter. As he tugged to get the ornament off the arm, Tippou revived and took a swipe at the scavenger. By that time another Tommy came and held his pistol at the temple of Tippou and fired at point blank range.

The bullet extinguished the last spark of the life of the greatest Indian of the 18th century and twilight enveloping the country became deep dark gloom. It took 58 years for the spark to be openly lit once more. Mangal Pandey rose in rebellion to the British in Barrackpore in 1857.

The reason India does not celebrate either Tippou or Mangal is that communal history rules out the first and twisted history the second. For 1857, was not a rebellion or an uprising, Mangal was not a freedom fighter but just a “mutineer!”

Why did the British so sedulously and with malice aforethought fight and fight, again and yet again until they destroyed Tippou and erased all he did from not only the ground in Mysore but also the memory of the people? The reason lay in Tippou Saheb’s “modern” mind and “scientific temper.”

He was not a typical “landlocked” backward looking Indian. He was in touch with the whole world and knew what was happening to change not only the reality but also the very paradigms of existence and everyday life.

The British feared him much more than the princes controlling much larger territories such as the Nizam of Hydera-bad and the Peshwa of Pune. A contemporary Britisher, Thomas Munro argued for his extermination in 1792 and the arguments he put forward are available in The Life of Thomas Munro by G R Gleig.

This book was published in 1831 and perhaps never reprinted, and is, therefore, comparatively unknown.“After 1792 the idea began to be entertained of a speedy accommodation with Tippou. Munro argued vehemently against this arrangement.

He pointed out that there were great advantages to be obtained from the present position of the British army having power over a prince weakened by repeated defeats. He treated with utter contempt the notion that the utter and absolute ruin of the Kingdom of Mysore, long term, could be injurious to British interests.”

“Of the Marathas (Mahrattas), at that time held in profound respect he (Munro) spoke of as barbarous hordes, totally incapable of meeting the British in the field (of battle) or even seriously injuring the British territory by their (marauding) inroads; whilst the Nizam justly represented as a cypher despite the great extent of his dominions, through the feebleness of his government and the disinclination of his troops to adopt an improved system of tactics. It was not so, however, with respect to Tippou.”

“He (Tippou) possessed an energy of character unknown to eastern princes, and ruled with arbitrary sway a people among whom every improvement in the art of war was sedulously cultivated. ‘Such a man!’ he contented ‘ought to be crushed at once or, at least, so weakened as to render him for ever innoxious (innocuous).’”

Munro went on to say, “The dissensions and revolutions of the native governments will point out (to us, the British) the time when it is proper for us to become actors.”“Such a time will never arrive (the appropriate time for the British to pounce and take over a state) while Tippou exists; while his power remains unimpaired.

So, far from being able to expand our territory we shall perpetually be in danger of losing it (what we have). Why not then remove, while we have the power to do so and we can, so formidable an enemy? But his (Tippou’s) system, if not broken would, in time be communicated to the successors of the Nizam.”

“If once destroyed there is little danger of it being re-established, it would require what may not happen in many ages — another Hyder; and even he would be unequal to the task, without the concurring circumstances of a European War to give him military skill and a minority, and a weak prince to give him a kingdom.”

“Nothing would be more absurd than our regarding any of the native governments as powers which are to last for ages. It would not be surprising if all of them would cease to exist in the course of the next 20 or 30 years.”

“Let us then, and while we can, make the most of the superior ability of our government: and if we are not, for inconceivable reasons of state, to extirpate Tippou, let us at least humble him by depriving him of the Malabar coast. When cut off from all intercourse with Europeans, his political and military systems may linger on during his reign but will expire under a successor.”

In consequence of his defeat in 1792, Tippou bought survival by surrendering half his kingdom to the confederacy of the British, the Nizam and the Maratthas (Peshwa). By 1799, the British were in possession of the wealth of Awadh and could afford to provoke the final war with Tippou which resulted in his defeat and death on May 4.

Thus, with the 18th century ended the only experiment of India being “modernised” by an Indian ruler. When we have rulers sensitive to history the death anniversary of a Tippou Sultan or a Mangal Pandey will be observed as a day of Remembrance and national renewal.

Akhilesh Mithal, 1998. All rights reserved.
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