Cover Story

On the Sultan’s Trail

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V Shoba follows the footsteps of a warrior king and listens to the voices of admiration and anger that echo his still volatile legacy

In the green, hilly tracts of Kodagu, a small district in Karnataka bordering Kerala, the past is urgent, pressing. A king’s ghost has been summoned again, so his story can be rewritten to suit the age. Tipu Sultan. Perhaps no other Indian king has been mummified by as much subjective judgement. Invariably, he is either a justified villain or an unjustified hero, a tele-serial star or a wanton killer of Hindus. In Kodagu, where Tipu is believed to have put thousands to the sword, a destabilising interrogation of his legacy recently claimed two more lives, over 200 years after the king perished in the British siege of Srirangapatna in 1799. Even as the Karnataka government’s plans to celebrate Tipu Jayanti on Deepavali day—10 days ahead of his date of birth, 20 November—predictably met with opposition from Hindu organisations, the Muslims of Kodagu, many of them descendants of migrants from Kerala, appropriated him as their hero overnight. On the appointed day, the communities clashed violently in the tourist town of Madikeri, the headquarters of the district, resulting in two unfortunate deaths: 65-year-old DS Kuttappa, the district organising secretary of the Vishva Hindu Parishad, was killed when he fell or was pushed from, depending on who you believe, a height during the riot; and 22-year-old Shahul Hamid from Siddapur was shot while returning in a truck from Madikeri. Observers blame the deaths on police and administrative negligence, but the reality of the unrest in Kodagu runs deeper.

From his perch in Srirangapatna near Mysore, Tipu Sultan—and before him, his father Haider Ali—had repeatedly attacked Kodagu in the 1780s in order to secure free passage to Malabar. His incursions into Coorg, replete with the plunder and destruction of temples—a common practice in medieval times even among Hindu rulers—were time and again thwarted by native Kodava warriors, but the region eventually succumbed to the assaults. According to historical accounts, Tipu then ordered ‘both the slain and the prisoners, with the women and children, to be made Musalmans.’ “Kodavas were deeply scarred by Tipu’s excesses but they did not give up. They had their tiri-toks—country guns—and they were skilled at guerrilla warfare. For Tipu’s army, the leeches alone proved a deterrent,” says Addanda C Cariappa, a writer, actor, theatre person and former president of the Karnataka Kodava Sahitya Academy, who is working on a book in Kannada on Tipu Sultan. His pride in the community’s martial heritage and its achievements in the military soon dissolve into alarmism as he talks about the shrinking Kodava population. “We are a dwindling race with a population of just 1.25 lakh. Soon, we will be the Kashmiri Pandits of south India. The religious turbulence of Tipu’s reign is partly to blame,” Cariappa says.

There is no love lost between Kodavas and the erstwhile ruler of Mysore: they will tell you that Tipu was no son of the soil; that he preferred Persian to Kannada and wanted to propagate Islam across south India; and that his epitaph in Srirangapatna and the inscription on his sword commemorate him as a sultan who lived and died for the faith. This, then, was the majoritarian cultural sentiment that formed the backdrop of the Tipu Jayanti celebrations in Kodagu. The Siddaramaiah government has been accused of inciting riots for political gain in a district where all the legislators—two MLAs, KG Bopaiah and Appachu Ranjan, and Prathap Simha, the lone MP from Kodagu—belong to the BJP. Conspiracy theorists go to the extent of alleging that a law-and-order crisis was precipitated by the Siddaramaiah camp to show the new home minister of the state, G Parameshwara, in poor light. Whatever the provocation, the celebrations marked a dark day for communal harmony in the state.

It is dark when we halt at Kuttappa’s house near Madhapur, about 20 km north-east of Madikeri, at the end of a long, snaking drive through banana and paddy fields. The sitting room is bustling with local reporters, Sangh Parivar activists and Kuttappa’s scampering grandchildren. His son Dani wears a dhoti and an unreadable expression. His mother sits unmoving in a corner, her long hair undone,face buried between her knees. “Father knew his life was in danger. But anything could have happened in Madikeri that day and he could not stay away,” says Dani, who works at a factory in Madikeri and is an RSS activist. “They beat him and stoned him, then pushed him to his death. There are eyewitnesses who saw what happened near General Thimmaiah Circle.” The police are awaiting the autopsy report that may throw light on the cause of his death.

On that Tuesday morning, a few thousand people carrying Tipu flags marched towards Town Hall, where his birthday was to be celebrated. The 2,000 policemen who were later deployed to keep vigil over the small district—4,100 sq km of it—had not yet been called in; the district administration was wholly unprepared for trouble. As supporters of the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI) and Sangh Parivar activists hurled stones at one another, the situation quickly spiralled out of control and the police resorted to a lathi charge. “The Muslims came armed with stones and swords,” alleges Dani. Soon, he is no longer talking about the death of his father, but building a case against “radical Muslims” who, he alleges, have destroyed the peace of the region.

Kodagu is a peaceable place where enmities that lay buried in the dim mists of the past are not easily kindled. Before the flare-up around Tipu Jayanti, the Sultan’s exploits here were largely forgotten—although, if you visit enough Kodava homes, you will have occasion to pet dogs named Tipu. The last time there was a Hindu- Muslim clash in Kogadu was in December 2001, when miscreants vandalised the Harishchandra temple at Palur, about 20 km from Madikeri. Angry Hindu mobs gathered in town, blocking roads and attacking Muslim worshippers; Section 144 was eventually imposed. Like most riots, the 2001 incident reeked of political opportunism and widened the space between Kodagu’s communities. This is happening again now, thanks to a king who has captured the fancy of a nation in search of heroes. Tipu introduced land reforms and modern banking. He abolished alcohol and donated to temples. He was the last Indian ruler to consistently rebel against the British. Yet, large sections of Kodavas do not hesitate to judge an 18th-century ruler by 21st-century morals. “He killed Hindus and converted them. These people who want to celebrate him—what are they celebrating exactly?” Dani asks.

“The problem is that people think in terms of religion in this country,” says actor and playwright Girish Karnad, who received a death threat on social media after remarking that Bengaluru International Airport would have been named after Tipu Sultan, and not after city founder Kempegowda, had the king been Hindu. “It is not as though our politics has changed in 200 years. We still see leaders using atrocities to build their careers. At least Tipu Sultan did not commit these atrocities against his people. I can’t see how what he did was more condemnable. The people of Mysore were happy with him,” he says.

On the banks of the Cauvery at Ayyankeri, a village 6 km from the temple town of Bhagamandala on the road to Madikeri, is a patch of flat forest land planted with kodampuli (Malabar tamarind) trees. A barbed wire fence separates it from private land where rising water levels have made cultivation difficult; consequently, a lush pastoral meadow stretches all the way down to the river, its waters screened from sight by a thin line of trees. Inside the fence stands a small, rounded black stone with the date ‘13.12.1785’ painted on it, next to the words ‘Holocaust of the Humans’. Visiting what is described to me as the Auschwitz and Jallianwala Bagh of Kodagu, I am struck by the absence of history around it. No one in the neighbourhood has heard of Devattiparambu, the grounds where Tipu Sultan is said to have massacred over 30,000 Kodavas on a single day after inviting them to a feast. Yet, Kodavas like Addanda Cariappa are convinced that this is where the king all but wiped out a thriving, fearless people. Cariappa’s book is to be released on 13 December to commemorate the incident. “We used to call this area periya parambu (big ground). The NCC camped here in the 1950s to build a bridge,” says Abdul Rahman, a villager who owns some land next to the river, speaking in Malayalam. “A couple of months ago, some people from the Codava National Council [which has been campaigning for ethno-linguistic tribal minority status for Kodavas] came and looked around for a place to install the memorial. Since this is forest land, they thought it would be safe here,” he says. Rahman and his neighbours attended the Tipu Jayanti celebrations in Madikeri because they were puzzled at the calumny suddenly hurled at their village. Tipu allegedly converted thousands of Kodavas, whose descendants are now known as Kodava Mappilas. Muslims living in Ayyankeri, however, say their ancestors migrated from Kerala. “We have a mosque here that is said to date back 300 years and there are no records of conversion by Tipu Sultan in these parts,” says Rahman. “Nor is there any proof that this was Tipu’s killing field.”

Was Tipu really a monster of ego and a jihadist? Or could he have liberated India from the imperialists? “How does it matter? Lives have been lost,” says Abdul Naseer, the father of Shahul Hamid. “We have lost our only son.” In a small house with green walls, Naseer and his wife Kulusu contemplate their misfortune. “Shahul worked at a Toyota showroom in Bengaluru. He had come to Siddapur to apply for a BPL card so that we could get a discount on his sister’s kidney stone surgery in Mangalore,” says Kulusu. “He did not know a thing about Tipu. He just hitched a ride back home from Madikeri.” About 300 Muslim youth from Siddapur, Kodagu, attended the event, and most of them have since fled the area fearing arrest. “There are no youth in town today. There is fear. The police keep coming back with inquiries,” says Naseer. Police have made over 60 arrests so far and filed 35 cases. A magisterial probe has been ordered. “The people who killed my son go scot free even now,” Naseer says. He flew in from Dubai, where he works as a driver, when he heard his son had been shot. “I remember thinking, ‘It is a bullet to the head, he won’t make it’,” says Naseer, who has no plans to return to the Middle East. “There is no one to earn for,” he says.

While the Madikeri incident may have been precipitated by an unmindful government decision, there is a discernible trend of Muslim radicalisation in Kodagu, says KB Ganapathy, editor-in-chief of Star of Mysore, a widely- read evening newspaper. “I grew up in Kodagu. Muslim women never wore burkhas until a few years ago. Just two years ago, a women’s college in Virajpet took issue with students suddenly appearing in burkhas. The women in turn asserted their fundamental right to wear them, and eventually the parties came to the compromise that they could wear the burkha till the college gate but no further,” he says. “In this situation, the Congress may well be trying to capture the Muslim vote.”

In Srirangapatna, the anniversary of Tipu Sultan’s death is celebrated with much gusto. Followers waving banners with his emblem—a blazing sun amidst tiger stripes— participate in a procession from his mosque to his grave, where they smear sandal paste on the tomb. “I have attended many of these processions—called urs—and they have been peaceful. It is when you politicise the celebration that problems occur,” Ganapathy says. He has argued against idolising Tipu over other kings who fought the British. “Why doesn’t Mamata Banerjee celebrate the birthday of Siraj-ud-Daulah, the last independent Nawab of Bengal? He lived before Tipu’s time,” the editor says.

Tipu was a multicultural icon, a proto-nationalist who understood the future and respected other religions, says leftist historian KN Panikkar, who wants the country to remember him “not as a Muslim ruler but as a ruler of Mysore who gave us an anti-imperialist legacy”. Must we celebrate kings in democratic India? A king is not a perfection of noble qualities. He may fight an intercontinental cast of foes, but he is first and foremost fighting for his territory. “Freedom as we know it today was not part of Tipu Sultan’s imagination,” says Addanda Cariappa. “Just as it was not part of the imagination of the Peshwas or the Rani of Jhansi. They all fought for themselves.”

‘Happy is the country that needs no heroes,’ wrote Bertolt Brecht. Let us live up to the perils of the era and not drag a long-dead ruler to court with us.