Tipu Sultan was a contemporary of George Washington, who led the American army against England during the American War of Independence. The British, as we know, were defeated and General Cornwallis signed the surrender of the British troops to George Washington, in 1781, after the Battle of Yorktown. That marked the final chapter of the British ‘adventure’ in North America. Indeed, we are then tempted to ask ourselves what’s the connection between General Cornwallis and Tipu Sultan of Mysore, in India? By some odd coincidence of history, the destinies of both these men were to cross paths in Mysore, India, in 1789.
General Cornwallis, after England’s defeat in America and the loss of its colonies there, returned to his native England, where he was eventually hired by the British East India Company that had been doing a lot more than just trade since its entry into India. In fact, the Company had slowly been engaged in ‘Empire building’ for England since the time it received a concession from Emperor Akbar in 1600 to trade. However, what the Company had also been doing, beside trade, was to conquer Indian territories in its attempt to gradually subjugate the country and Tipu Sultan was one Indian ruler who read through their scheme and fought them and that he would do for forty years, that is, till his death in 1799.
General Charles Cornwallis was sent by the British East India Company to India to find ways and means, to quell all resistance against the British in India — more particularly that of Tipu Sultan of Mysore. Cornwallis’ mission in India, was to develop military and political strategies to put down the resistance to the Company’s moves. Using conceit and deceit, he pursued schemes of ‘divide and rule’ by offering bribes and other inducements to the local princes in order to destroy the ‘enemies’ of British interests in India. In that scheme, he enlisted some treacherous selfish Indians like the then Nizam of Hyderabad, a few senior officials in Tipu’s own Court, and even the Marathas – the rising power in the west of India led by their charismatic leader Shivaji.
In 1799, Cornwallis ordered the siege of Tipu’s fortress at Srisarangapatam, then the second largest city of Mysore. Tipu Sultan was well ensconced in his fort when on the night of May 4, 1799, the British launched a surprise attack and opened a big breach in a wall of the fortress with their superior cannons and gun-power. In the chaos that ensued, Tipu Sultan was killed.
His body was not found until the next day. The fall of Tipu heralded the imminent fall of India. Actually, it would be fair to say that Tipu was not ‘defeated’ but was rather brought down by the treachery of some of his own close collaborators.
Tipu Sultan’s death at Srisarangapatam in 1799, sealed the fate of India. Indeed, it was all happening at a propitious moment in world’s history. It was the era of such marked events like the American Wars of Independence, the French Revolution in Europe and the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte, among others. It was also the age of Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau – revolutionary thinkers, who had paved the way, with their intellect and revolutionary thoughts for social justice among others, that helped usher in a new Revolutionary age that would change the face of Europe and history.
“Fabulous India!” boasting a civilization dating back to thousands of years, which would give so much to western civilizations in terms of scientific and mathematical knowledge including arts, architecture and philosophy had, by that time, it seemed, lost its luster and political vitality – so to say – and it would not be long before the British East India Company, would take over India and, eventually, hand it to the British Queen as “the Jewel in (her) Crown.”
However, it must be stressed that, literally speaking, the British did not ‘conquer’ India. Rather, it was the squabbles, the mutual distrust, divisions among Indian factions that involved treachery and betrayals among themselves, that eventually helped the Indians to literally hand over India to the British.
The fall of Tipu Sultan at Srisarangapatam marked the end of an era in Indian history that had, hitherto, been a fabulously glorious chapter of the long Muslim rule of India by the Mughals that began with Babur, the founder of the Mughal dynasty.
Tipu Sultan, at his death, was hailed as a “martyr” and “a patriot” for the significant efforts he made to keep India free of British involvement in Indian affairs. Indeed, Tipu cherished peace and liberty. He was a good and secular leader known for his spirit of tolerance and respect for all cultures in his realm.
Early, the next day, after the fall of Srisarangapatam, the body of Tipu Sultan was found in the compound of the Fort. The spot was immediately marked by his folks and till to-day the marker is there to remind generations to come and the world where one of the mightiest and most charismatic sons of India gave his life trying to preserve India from falling to the British. Tipu’s memory survives till to-day — two hundred and twenty years this year — ever revered and respected by many not only in South India but all across the entire sub-continent.
Sure, Tipu was a Muslim ruler and the bulk of his subjects were Hindus. Yet his is a name that is revered in India. In his sight, all his subjects were Indians. He was a tolerant and secular leader although some may take issue with that as was shown a few years back when the Congress State Government of the state of Karnataka decided to declare Tipu’s birth-anniversary a public holiday. The right-wing nationalist Bharatya Janata Party (BJP)’s supporters suddenly rose in protests and organized street demonstrations against the move. They claimed Tipu Sultan was a ‘communalist’ and an intolerant despot. Street-riots broke out and people were killed. That was, of course, symptomatic of the new mood that had been created in India by the doctrine of the right-wing Hindutva (Hindu nationalism) and espoused by the BJP – a move which eventually led it to take power in New Delhi. They would not accept Congress Party’s initiative – the more so because Tipu Sultan was a Muslim. They did not welcome the Congress Party’s initiative. However, the government of the State stood its ground and went ahead with its decision. Tipu Jayanti is a public holiday in the State of Karnataka.
In the late 90’s, the Bollywood actor-producer, Sanjay Khan, produced and starred in a TV-Series on the life and times of Tipu Sultan under title “THE SWORD OF TIPU SULTAN”. It was based on a novel by Bhagwan Gidwani. It was a very successful series and was well appreciated and applauded by the viewing public of the Indian diaspora countries.
Tipu’s fall on May 04, 1799, marked the end of an era in India’s history. But his example and his stand for freedom and justice for his people, for his country has survived. In South India, nowadays, a visit to Mysore is a must for any visitor. It brings back memories of the giant of a man and the leader Tipu Sultan was. Even the British, to whom he was ever a thorn on their side, would never refer to him as Tipu Sultan but they would use the more respectful term: “Tipu Sahib.” In India Tipu remains an iconic symbol of freedom, justice and liberty.