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History of the Present

Everyone Loves a Loser

MJ Akbar is an MP and the author of, among other titles, Tinderbox: The Past and Future of Pakistan
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Why has Tipu Sultan become a faux saint, while his father Hyder Ali has been virtually erased from the memory of Karnataka Muslims?

THE TEMPTATION TO turn history, a dignified if perhaps boring old dowager, into a sparkling Venus through the artificial insemination of imagination has been irresistible to creative minds of all genres, from the great theatre of Shakespeare to the grand pulp of popular cinema. In such an avatar, history is not so much a reflection of the past as a mirror of the present.

Perceptive investors have always treated this axiom as a fundamental law of media profit. Facts are malleable, so narrative is subjective. The defining film of this philosophy was surely the exquisite all-time super hit Mughal-e-Azam, which appeared on the screen in 1960 and has still not exhausted its lucrative potential. In the original, the music was resplendent and actors brilliant: Dilip Kumar, Madhubala and Prithviraj Kapoor convinced viewers that each sentence they uttered in exquisite Urdu was dipped in the raw passions of truth. Nearly six decades later, it has been reinvented as a stage musical with the usual cast of hundreds; and the box office keeps churning.

What does it matter if a dancing girl called Anarkali existed or not; or whether Salim, heir to the Mughal Empire, was entranced by her beauty? Her aspiration to become Empress of India on the wings of true love is a wonderful story, with Marxist undertones. Why should a qaneez, a slave, and thereby I imagine pretty low in the proletarian order, not aspire to rule? We have it on the authorityof no less a witness than the splendid court historian Abul Fazl that Salim did go to war against his father, Emperor Akbar, although he does offer more mundane reasons for rebellion. Such irritating doubts are banished by persuasive solutions: obviously, in his job, he could not commit lese-majesty. There is a market in Lahore named after Anarkali. QED.

The contemporary rebirth of historical fiction, or fictional history, began with The Sword of Tipu Sultan, a television serial broadcast in 60 episodes by Doordarshan during its heyday across 1990 and 1991. Doordarshan was the sole national entertainer then, putting its monopoly to occasional good use and more often to tawdry excess. But the audience it created for pulp was phenomenal.There was no statutory warning that the storyline might not necessarily have anything to do with reality. Fiction was sold as fact, and it remained a fact for most of the vast television audience.

The Tipu serial was officially sourced to a book by Bhagwan Gidwani, which was, needless to add, reinvented once more by the producer and lead actor Sanjay Khan. What the unfortunate Khan did not realise is that the Tipu sword had two sides: if one side was gilded with fame, the other was cursed by misfortune. The original sword was sheathed in defeat, when Tipu Sultan was destroyed in his final battle against the British, in 1799. This sword, and Tipu’s favourite toy, a mechanical tiger that gloried in eating an East India Company sepoy, ended up in London, evidence of British triumph for generations of school children. The tiger, Tipu’s political statement, became a British colonial advertisement.

Alas, for reasons that can only remain inexplicable, misfortune had a more immediate facet. Sanjay Khan was grievously injured in a studio fire while filming the serial. More recently, Tipu’s sword was purchased in London by a liquor baron anxious to burnish his patriotic credentials while attempting to win an election to the Rajya Sabha. His fortunes, since then, have been in spectacular decline.

We live in an age when paradox has become the new normal. Tipu Sultan has now become a paragon of virtue for his devotees, a figure who can now do no wrong. I use ‘devotees’ with conscious care. A few years ago, I was astonished to hear a Karnataka politician, who shall remain anonymous in his own interest, describe Tipu Sultan as ‘Hazrat’, a title reserved for Sufi saints. I have not been to Tipu’s grave, but I would not be surprised if he is now accorded, by his followers, the mysterious powers of a venerated holy man.

Tipu may have been a good Sultan who eventually paid for some pretty facile strategic mistakes, but saint he was not. However, to be fair, the politician was not interested in divinity. He was only interested in votes of the näive. In many Karnataka Muslim circles, it is now de rigueur to call Tipu Sultan ‘Hazrat’. He is also routinely described as the ‘first freedom fighter’ against the British, another bit of nonsense.

If going to war against the British is any criterion for an accolade, then the demonstrably incompetent Siraj ud Daulah, famous for his defeat at Plassey in 1757, is about half a century ahead of Tipu Sultan. In 1764, an alliance of Shah Alam II, Mir Qasim of Bengal and Shuja ud Daulah of Awadh confronted the East India Company forces, led by Major Hector Munro, at Buxar. Robert Clive hogs all the credit after Plassey, but it was Buxar which gave the British their launching space for an empire.

During the First Anglo-Maratha War between 1775 and 1782, the celebrated Mahadji Shinde and Tukojirao Holkar smashed their British enemy at Wadgaon on January 12th, 1779. Warren Hastings tried to protect British interests through mischief and worse, but Maratha sway across central India could not be challenged for the rest of the 18th century.

In a few vulnerable parts of our democracy, the quality of gullibility is not strained; it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the voter beneath. Democracy should encourage thought; thought should feed questions. Why has Tipu Sultan become a faux saint, while his father Hyder Ali has been virtually erased from the memory of Karnataka Muslims? After all, it was Hyder Ali who drove the British back to their base in the first Anglo-Mysore War between 1766 and 1769. Tipu did win the Second War between 1780 and 1784, when his army still possessed the discipline and spirit injected by Hyder, but was badly trounced in the third and fourth wars.

Tipu Sultan lost his inheritance, and aborted his own potential, by some inexplicable manoeuvres and immature expectations, not least of them being a longing for massive French intervention on his behalf. The French, in their revolutionary phase, were for obvious reasons more interested in Europe than India; and when their greatest commander, Napoleon, looked east he saw Egypt as the gate to the Ottoman Empire. India could only be the last stop on a very long journey towards a world empire.

Moreover, Hyder Ali was astute enough to understand that despite the antagonism of his neighbour Asaf Jah II, the Nizam of Hyderabad, Hyderabad remained an effective buffer state. He compromised with the Nizam when he felt that was necessary. Tipu Sultan, in contrast, gave his northern neighbour enough reason to ally with the British for the final war that destroyed the Tipu sultanate.

The consequences of Tipu’s mistakes cascaded into the 19th century and reshaped its map. If the British had been stopped in the south, they would have been contained to Bengal, because Marathas were still undefeated in central India, Awadh still held the Ganga-Jumna belt, and a fast-rising Sikh power under Maharaja Ranjit Singh would keep the British out of the northwest up to Khyber and beyond. The British march to Delhi, completed in 1802, would most likely have been thwarted.

It can be assumed that everyone loves a winner, at least when in the normal frame of mind. Why is a comparative loser like Tipu Sultan being acclaimed by his devotees far beyond what the known facts merit? These facts have not been picked up from the grey region of fragmentary records saved by accident from antiquity.1799 is the last year of the 18th century, and annals were being updated by the various Indian monarchies along with events. There is no controversy about these facts. Why, to repeat my earlier query, has Tipu been elevated and Hyder relegated by Karnataka Muslims?

Is it because a minority complex, first developed in slow stages through British-instigated Muslim politics and then paced by vote-bank politics after freedom, needs the mindset of a victim far more than the positive image of success?

Is this why there has been a conscious revival of the last Mughal, Bahadur Shah Zafar, a weak dynast reduced to self- pity in his better moments; an uncertain prisoner of the British during his alleged ‘reign’ bewildered by the passions of the 1857 uprising that thrust him into the vanguard? I do not compare Zafar with Tipu, for Tipu Sultan was certainly a warrior. What is interesting is not history per se, but how it has been integrated into a contemporary need for the false comfort of victimisation. It is a subject worth a debate.

Let me end with good news, though. The children of the 21st century in Karnataka and India are visibly becoming a different entity in their sense of themselves, in their ambitions and in their confidence. They are only in their second decade, but they know that their destiny lies not in their past, but in their future.

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