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Why do we honour Ashoka and not Tipu?

Why do we honour Ashoka and not Tipu?

November 18, 2015 14:20 IST

Tipu Sultan

‘Ashoka the Great did not slaughter foreigners or Muslims when he conquered Kalinga. It was Oriya-speaking Hindus whom he butchered by the tens of thousands. But Ashoka is called Great, and his lion emblem is the official symbol of the Republic of India.’

‘Why do we honour Ashoka and not Tipu, when both men are accused of the same crime? We know the answer and it is obvious. A Muslim king cannot get away with doing the same things a Hindu can in India,’ says Aakar Patel.

Pakistan’s High Commissioner Abdul Basit was in Bangalore a couple of weeks ago, for an event of which I was also part.

I knew him from before, and asked him what he planned to do in South India (apparently he was only the first or second Pakistani high commissioner ever to be allowed to visit Bangalore). He would see the city’s technology parks, he said, and also would go to Mysore, which is a two hour drive sway from here. There he would visit Tipu Sultan’s palace in Srirangapatnam, just outside Mysore.

Basit assumed that all Indians would feel proud of Tipu, but, of course, he was wrong as recent events have shown.

Two people have died in Karnataka last week, over the marking of Tipu’s birthday. It has become, as so many things depressingly become in India these days, a Hindu-Muslim issue.

In our part of the world, kings are seen as ‘good’ (Ashoka, Akbar etc) and ‘bad’ (Aurangzeb, Tipu Sultan). This is a marked characteristic of a society and a nation that sees history through emotion and not fact or reason.

It is also the sign of a mostly illiterate and mostly neo-literate people.

The boasts of Tipu and his generals are held against them to make it out as if he was forever on jihad against Hindus. This is bogus, but there is no point in trying to show that here. It is better to read books about him and be convinced, than to be told.

Here, of course, the problem is that very few books are written in India, unlike in the civilised world. We have no tradition of writing memoirs and keeping diaries. We have no interest in putting out new works on figures from the past.

And so there are no books being written by Indians on Tipu. One must consult 19th century works like Haidar Ali, Tipu Sultan and the struggle of the Mussulman powers of the South, by Lewis Bowring (a name familiar to Bangaloreans through the Bowring Club on St Mark’s Road) to learn something about this king.

What interests me about Tipu are two or three things. First, that he was very difficult to defeat for the English. When we read the works of our last great historian of the period, Sir Jadunath Sarkar, it becomes clear that Tipu was a real warrior.

The embarrassing collapse of the Marathas after the defeat at Panipat stands out in contrast to the dogged resistance of Tipu. All of this happened within 40 years, between 1761 (when Ahmed Abdali won at Panipat) and 1799, when Tipu was killed.

In these few years the British defeated all their enemies and only Punjab remained, which would fall automatically after the death of Ranjit Singh a few decades later.

It was only against Tipu that they faced real resistance. He was a terrific general, had a shrewd understanding of geo-politics (playing the French against the British) and had a modern approach to war.

Second, it is well known that his army was first or among the first to deploy rocketry. His soldiers attached blades to these crude rockets which were fired into the enemy infantry.

It took the greatest warrior in British history, Arthur Wellesley, to defeat Tipu. Wellesley (whom we know as the Duke of Wellington) later defeated Napoleon at Waterloo.

It is depressing to me that Tipu’s military and nationalistic achievements are overlooked so easily today. All that is remembered is the idea that he killed or converted Hindus, whether this is true or false.

Ashoka the Great did not slaughter foreigners or Muslims when he conquered Kalinga. It was Oriya-speaking Hindus whom he butchered by the tens of thousands, according to the stories we are told. But Ashoka is called Great, and his lion emblem is the official symbol of the Republic of India. The wheel in the middle of the Indian flag is called the ‘Ashoka Chakra’ because that is also his symbol.

Why do we honour Ashoka and not Tipu, when both men are accused of the same crime? We know the answer and it is obvious. A Muslim king cannot get away with doing the same things a Hindu can in India.

The great house of Patiala was founded by Maharaja Ala Singh. He has zero military achievements to his name. Ala Singh became powerful because he assisted Abdali in defeating the Marathas and was rewarded by the Afghan.

Does anyone see Ala Singh or his ancestors as traitors? The Patiala kings consistently resisted Maharaja Ranjit Singh, but nobody sees them as anti-nationals. It is always the Muslim king for whom this treatment is reserved.

We are unwilling to read or write about such men, but always willing to believe the worst about them and always willing to protest against things about which we know little.

Aakar Patel is Executive Director, Amnesty International India. The views expressed here are his own.

You can read more of Aakar’s columns here.

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