Tipou's Outlook Cost Him His Life
April, 26th, 1998 © Akhilesh Mithal
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
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
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
Sahebs 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
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
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
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 (Tippous) 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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