TIPU SULTAN was one of India's greatest sons who fought the British and died in battle at Srirangapatna in 1799. Just two centuries after his death, very little of his physical legacy remains. His capital was sacked and his palace razed to the ground. Tipu remains a controversial figure in history, drawing extreme reactions — he is either reviled or adored. Mention his name and there are ambivalent feelings about this son of a common soldier who himself was no uncommon man.
Haidar Ali was not literate but took great care to educate his son even as he ensured that his heir would be both a man of letters and the sword. Tipu was fluent in Persian, Arabic, Kannada, English, and French, and the royal library had 40,000 books. As a far-sighted visionary who could grasp the implications of colonialism, Tipu was ahead of his times, something his contemporaries, especially the Marathas and the Nizam, weren't. The last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, often lamented the burden Tipu carried on his shoulders, without his neighbours' help. Even so, on hearing of Tipu's death, his arch enemy Peshwa Baji Rao said: "I have lost my right arm."
Tipu was groomed early by his father, accompanying him to the battlefield by the time he was 15. Both Haidar and Tipu, who extended the boundaries of Old Mysore, defeated the British at Pollilur, Tanjore, and Bidnur. Much has been written about Tipu's policies towards Hindus. There are those who tar him with the communal brush and those like G.S. Sardesai, who, in his New History of the Marathas, writes: "He expended large amounts of money to set up new idols in Hindu shrines. Forty thousand Brahmans received alms and rations. Thus he announced to the world how, though a Muslim, he served the interests of the Hindus..."
Tipu donated generously to the Hindu shrines at Sringeri, Melkote, Nanjangud, and Srirangapatna. A linga donated by Tipu is worshipped to this day at the Nanjangud temple. Talking about his charisma, Dennys Forrest says: "Looking back over his story, I think, it can be seen that he had a rare quality of single-mindedness. As in the style of his letters, so in the shape of his life, Tipu Sultan was recognisably himself. That is why the English feared him, even beyond reason. And he was a brave man. He may have fallen short in wisdom and foresight, but never in aspiration, never in his dream of a united, an independent, a prosperous Mysore."
After death, Tipu enjoyed a brief spell of popularity in England and France. Mr. Forrest narrates an incident where Raja Ram Mohan Roy, in London in1830, was accosted by boys shouting "Tipu! Tipu!!", thanks to his turban that resembled the sultan's. Tipu was a pioneer in modernising his army too. After the Third Mysore War, as a war strategist, he engaged French technicians to improve upon existing weaponry and develop new ones. Although he was fundamentally an infantry soldier, he knew the importance of artillery over cavalry. He systematically used artillery to his advantage in his wars against the Marathas and the British. He also had an impressive stock of rockets. His army was well trained in using them effectively. Some of them had heavy stones embedded in them.
According to the History of the Regiment of Artillery ' (Indian Army), Tipu Sultan "divided his jaish (infantry) into four cutchehries (brigades) and each of the latter consisted of six cushoon (regiments). Each cushoon had an establishment of rocketmen under a subedar and some lascars for drawing the guns. In addition, a number of guns were attached to each cushoon depending upon the strength of the corps, and the nature of service." In fact, Tipu's rockets were superior to those used by the British. For transportation of heavy weaponry, history records that he had developed a "special breed of bullocks" that could transport the guns fast. It is interesting to note that Lord Wellesley recalled Tipu's bullocks at Waterloo while carrying his guns there.
After the fall of Tipu Sultan, his rockets were taken to England. They were renamed Congreve (after William Congreve who, as a subaltern, had fought Tipu in 1799) rockets and introduced in the British service in 1806. President Abdul Kalam in his autobiography, Wings of Fire , says Tipu was revered in America too, and recalls his own experience at NASA. He had been to the Wallops Flight Facility at Wallops Island in East Coast, Virginia, which was a base of NASA's sounding rocket programme, and had seen a painting displayed prominently in the lobby there. It depicted a battle scene with rockets flying in the background. Later, he came to know it was Tipu Sultan's army fighting the British. He writes: "The painting depicted a fact forgotten in Tipu's own country but commemorated here on the other side of the planet. I was happy to see an Indian glorified by NASA as a hero of warfare rocketry."
Tipu wrote letters and sent ambassadors to France, Afghanistan, and Turkey to enlist their support in overthrowing the British from India. He made special efforts to seek help from Napoleon. In a letter, the latter addressed Tipu as "the most magnificent Sultan, our greatest friend Tippoo Saib". After arriving on the border of the Red Sea, Napoleon wrote that with his "invincible" army, he would free him from the "iron yoke of England". Unfortunately, circumstances worked against Tipu and he failed to get any real support from his foreign missions, especially from France, which was engaged in a war against England. He was not just a warmonger. His administration was tightly knit. He abolished the zamindari system and farmers were taxed according to their harvest, normally a quarter of their produce.
Trade prospered and sandalwood oil, silks, carpets, and ivory articles were exported through the land and sea routes. Bhatkal, Mangalore, and Honnavar were the major ports during his reign. Haidar Ali and Tipu both aesthetes who loved greenery. Every Bangalorean knows their contribution to the Lal Bagh. Haidar imported several plants from Delhi, Lahore, and Multan, while Tipu extended the plant collection with specimens from France, China, and Turkey. Three mango trees planted by him in Lal Bagh bear fruit even today.
It is a sad commentary in free India that nothing concrete has been done to honour the memory of this great fighter. The KSTDC Mysore tour mentions Tipu's tomb in its itinerary, but seldom do the buses halt there. Every year, the Kittur festival commemorates another patriot, Rani Chennamma. But no such festival is held in the memory of this great martyr.
The circle facing the main gate of the fort in Srirangapatna is named after a former minister. Just nearby is Tipu's grand Masjid-e-Ala where he had commanded his soldiers to shed their last drop of blood for India's freedom.