A gun belonging to Tippu Sultan was found buried
near the hillock where he had camped. It was taken and placed in a
museum in Madras. Ramana Maharshi said that whatever Temple might have
existed on or about Pavalakkunru seemed to have disappeared probably on
account of Tippu Sultan's invasion. The present Temple was probably
built only a hundred and fifty years ago."
If you mentally delete all the recent construction between the
Pavalakundru Hillock and Arunachaleswarar Temple, it is easy to
visualise the invading Tippu Sultan army camped on the Hillock with
their army and canons, raining their shot down upon the outside of the
northern wall of the Arunachaleswarar Temple compound.
A fanatical Muslim despot was resisting the west, there were calls for regime change. We have, of course, been here before . . .
By the end of the 90s, the hardliners calling for regime change in the
east found that they had a powerful ally in government. This new
president was not prepared to wait to be attacked: he was a new sort of
conservative, aggressive in foreign policy, bitterly anti-French, and
intent on turning his country into the unrivalled global power. It was
best, he believed, simply to remove any hostile Muslim regime that
presumed to resist the west.
There was no doubt who would be the first to be targeted: a Muslim
dictator whose family had usurped power in a military coup. According to
British sources, this chief of state was an "intolerant bigot", a
"furious fanatic" with a "rooted and inveterate hatred of Europeans",
who had "perpetually on his tongue the projects of jihad". He was also
deemed to be "oppressive and unjust ... [a] sanguinary tyrant, [and a]
It was, in short, time to take out Tipu Sultan of Mysore. The president
of the board of control, Henry Dundas, the minister who oversaw the East
India Company, had just the man for the job. Richard Wellesley was sent
out to India in 1798 as governor general with specific instructions to
effect regime change in Mysore and replace Tipu with a western-backed
puppet. First, however, Wellesley and Dundas had to justify to the
British public a policy whose outcome had long been decided in private.
Wellesley therefore began a campaign of vilification against Tipu,
portraying him as an aggressive Muslim monster who divided his time
between oppressing his subjects and planning to drive the British into
the sea. This essay in imperial villain-making opened the way for a
lucrative conquest and the installation of a more pliable regime that
would, in the words of Wellesley, allow the British to give the
impression they were handing the country back to its rightful owners
while in reality maintaining firm control.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a politician in search of a
war is not over-scrupulous with matters of fact. Until recently, the
British propaganda offensive against Tipu has determined the way that we
- and many Indians - remember him. But, as with more recent dossiers
produced to justify pre-emptive military action against mineral-rich
Muslim states, the evidence reveals far more about the desires of the
attacker than it does about the reality of the attacked.
Recent work by scholars has succeeded in reconstructing a very different
Tipu to the one-dimensional fanatic invented by Wellesley. Tipu, it is
now clear, was one of the most innovative and far-sighted rulers of the
pre-colonial period. He tried to warn other Indian rulers of the dangers
of an increasingly arrogant and aggressive west. "Know you not the
custom of the English?" he wrote in vain to the nizam of Hyderabad in
1796. "Wherever they fix their talons they contrive little by little to
work themselves into the whole management of affairs."
What really worried the British was less that Tipu was a Muslim fanatic,
something strange and alien, but that he was frighteningly familiar: a
modernising technocrat who used the weapons of the west against their
inventors. Indeed, in many ways, he beat them at their own game: the
Mysore sepoy's flintlocks - as the examples for sale in an auction of
Tipu memorabilia at Sotheby's tomorrow demonstrate - were based on the
latest French designs, and were much superior to the company's old
Tipu also tried to import industrial technology through French
engineers, and experimented with harnessing water-power to drive his
machinery. He sent envoys to southern China to bring back silkworm eggs
and established sericulture in Mysore - an innovation that still
enriches the region today. More remarkably, he created what amounted to a
state trading company with its own ships and factories dotted across
the Gulf. British propaganda might portray Tipu as a savage barbarian,
but he was something of a connoisseur, with a library of about 2,000
volumes in several languages.
Moreover, contrary to the propaganda of the British, Tipu - far from
being some sort of fundamentalist - continued the Indo-Islamic tradition
of syncretism. He certainly destroyed temples in Hindu states that he
conquered in war, but temples lying within his domains were viewed as
protected state property and generously supported with lands and gifts
of money and even padshah lingams - a unique case of a Muslim sultan
facilitating the Shaivite phallus veneration. When the great Sringeri
temple was destroyed by a Maratha raiding party, Tipu sent funds for its
rebuilding. "People who have sinned against such a holy place," wrote a
solicitous Tipu, "are sure soon to suffer the consequences of their
Tipu knew what he was risking when he took on the British, but he said,
"I would rather live a day as a tiger than a lifetime as a sheep." As
the objects in tomorrow's sale show, the culture of innovation Tipu
fostered in Mysore stands record to a man very different from that
imagined by the Islamophobic propaganda of the British - and the
startling inaccuracy of Wellesley's "dodgy dossier" of 1799. The
fanatical bigot and savage was in fact an intellectual.
The whole episode is a sobering reminder of the degree to which
old-style imperialism has made a comeback under Bush and Blair. There is
nothing new about the neocons. Not only are westerners again playing
their old game of installing puppet regimes, propped up by western
garrisons, for their own political and economic ends but, more
alarmingly, the intellectual attitudes that buttressed and sustained
such imperial adventures remain intact.
Despite over 25 years of assault by Edward Said and his followers,
old-style Orientalism is alive and kicking, its prejudices intact, with
columnists such as Mark Steyn and Andrew Sullivan in the role of the new
Mills and Macaulays. Through their pens - blissfully unencumbered by
any knowledge of the Muslim world - the old colonial idea of the Islamic
ruler as the decadent, destructive, degenerate Oriental despot lives on
and, as before, it is effortlessly projected on a credulous public by
western warmongers in order to justify their own imperial projects.
Dundas and Wellesley were certainly more intelligent and articulate than
Bush or Rumsfeld, but they were no less cynical in their aims, nor less
ruthless in the means they employed to effect them.