How does one view a South Indian monarch who stood up to the British? Is he really worthy of all the negative press he has been getting from the newly empowered echo-boxes of the right wing, especially over Twitter and Facebook? These are some the questions that crossed my mind while picking up Kate Brittlebank's book, "Tiger - The Life of Tipu Sultan".
As a Keralan, I have always had a dim view of this father-son duo who invaded Malabar and Kochi, and along the way, slaughtered, enslaved or forcibly converted the locals, apart from the legacy of one of the most odd place-names in the region - Sultan Bathery (Sultan's Battery). It also brought back memories of an odd sight I had seen in the dense forests of Talavadi, in the Western Ghats. A long line of huge Banyan trees marked the remnants of a highway built across the mountains, by Mysorean army to reach the port cities of Kerala.
The book is a quick, easy read. Right at the outset, it sets the tone to readers' expectations by stating clearly that the focus is on the Tipu the person - a son, a father and a leader - rather than weighty matters related to state policy, military strategy and ethics.
This works pretty well. For one thing, it confirms that Tipu Sultan's identity as a Muslim was hardly an issue within his own kingdom of Mysore. He lavished funds and patronage to the shrines of all religions - Hindu, Muslim and Jain - located in his territories. His own palace in Srirangapattana stood next to a Vishnu temple dedicated to Sri Ranganatha, and he referred to the head of the monastery at Sringeri Math as "Jagatguru".
Outside his realm, he played the usual policy of Divide and Rule. He allied with the Marathas of Pune and the Nizam of Hyderabad whenever it was convenient. At other times, he actively encouraged infighting within their territories. Tipu instructed his agents in Pune to trigger fights between Hindus and Muslims, to weaken the Marathas - "Let the fire of discord, therefore, be kindled amongst them, to the end that they may, in this manner, waste each other".
There is good reason for his enemies to hate him -- especially after what he did to the Nairs of Malabar, the Coorgis of Kodagu, and the Christians of Konkan. Yet, as the author notes, "Warfare at this time was brutal, and the punishment for those who resisted often cruel. It was common practice to set examples to forestall further opposition". It is certainly not different from military intimidation described today as "shock and awe".
In the end, Tipu does manage to come through as a fairly good ruler, until he put all his eggs in the French basket, and then, ran out of luck.