The Pulse | Politics | South Asia

The Tipu Sultan Party: In Search of a ‘Secular Sultan’

The image of Tipu Sultan ranges from one extreme to another: a freedom fighter and a secular ruler or a bigoted tyrant.

Krzysztof Iwanek
The Tipu Sultan Party: In Search of a ‘Secular Sultan’
Credit: Charles H. Hubbell / Public Domain

The lobby of one of NASA’s facilities houses a painting that shows Tipu Sultan’s army firing rockets at the British army, a recognition that the technology of his state was a chapter in the history of rocket technology development. The same ruler possessed an automaton depicting a tiger killing a shrieking British soldier. The East India Company falsely claimed that he was running a “Jacobin Club,” thereby spearheading the French Revolution in his kingdom: the south Indian state of Mysore. And these are just randomly chosen facts, a tip of the iceberg when it comes to what Tipu Sultan was known for – and a taste of how one can cherry-pick aspects of his rule to uphold a particular image of him.

Mysore was one the states of India that the British East India Company found particularly hard to conquer, one of the few that proved capable of inflicting very heavy casualties on British invaders and defeating them in battles. Two Muslim rulers of the kingdom faced European power – Hyder Ali and his son Tipu Sultan – though eventually the latter was defeated by the British and lost his life in a siege in 1799. 

Eye on the (Mysore) Tiger

The image of Tipu Sultan has been constructed by many, with different interpretations of the figure poles apart, and some based more in modern worldviews and current political needs than history. On one extreme is the image of a “freedom fighter,” but also a wise and progressive ruler, a reformist who modernized his state and its army. The other extreme presents Tipu Sultan as a cruel bigoted Muslim ruler. His spirited fight against the British remains the only positive fact acknowledged about him across the political divide.

The historical reality is much more complex. Yes, Tipu Sultan was fond of technological novelties and continued with the modernization of the army started by his father. But perceiving him as a “progressive” would be a simplification. While doing his best to build an alliance with the new French Republic against the British and reforming some aspects of governance, Tipu Sultan showed no true inclination to introduce revolutionary reforms in his state. Yes, he was a Muslim and his father, a man of the same faith, took power in a state that had previously been ruled by a Hindu dynasty. Yes, he was ruthless and cruel at times, but very much like most of the rulers of his age. 

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As with many other wars on history, the current political discussion on Tipu Sultan is an exercise in cherry-picking, with both sides throwing select facts at each other. For example: Tipu Sultan’s critics will point to examples of forced conversion from Hinduism to Islam under his rule (an undertaking he was reportedly proud of); his defenders will then point to instances of his financial support to Hindu religious institutions.

Finally, there is the regional factor. Tipu Sultan is usually held in high regard in the Indian state of Karnataka – a territory that had once formed the core of the Mysore kingdom – as one of the region’s famous kings. The tension between the monarch’s various images has reveled itself many times over in recent years. For instance, when one of the members of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) from Karnataka counted Tipu among the ranks of the region’s prominent “freedom fighters,” his party – which has a national standing and professes the ideology of Hindu nationalism – distanced itself from the statement. A BJP spokesman called the monarch a “fanatic bigot”  whose rule was “tyrannical.” When the Indian National Congress ruled the state (together with a regional party) and organized birthday anniversary celebrations in the honor of Tipu Sultan, the BJP staged protests. Subsequently, when the latter took over power in Karnataka, it announced it may rub out the monarch’s name from the history textbooks. 

Yet, instead of these better-known instances from the political mainstream, I will focus on another part of the monarch’s presence in India’s political discourse: a party bearing his name.

From Tipu Sultan’s Army to Tipu Sultan’s Party

Most of India’s biggest parties do not honor a historical person within their name. One exception to this is the Shiv Sena, named after another king, Shivaji. However, one does stumble upon much smaller and little-known parties, such as the Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel Party or the Tipu Sultan Party (TSP).

The latter is a newcomer to the Indian political stage, having been established in 2019 and contesting national elections for the first time that same year. The party also fielded candidates in some recent regional elections, such as the January 2020 elections in Delhi – with no success in any of these attempts. The TSP is so far a small regional party, with its headquarters in the district of Beed in the state of Maharashtra. Its only notable electoral success so far is winning seats in the village council elections in the state of Karnataka.

The party was first registered as Tipu Sultan Sena (sena means “army”) in the state of Maharashtra and then as Tipu Sultan Party, its president, Shaikh Sadeque, informed me. Completely incidentally, this is exactly the journey that the image of Tipu Sultan went through – from a historical image focused on the military aspect of his rule to the current political significance of his name. 

The party’s program is so far presented in very general terms, but it should be noted that the TSP has been strongly opposed to some of the reforms of the central BJP government – such as the Citizenship Amendment Act and recent legislation that liberalized selling of agricultural produce. It is also clear that Tipu Sultan is more than just a name in the organization’s official documents – its members celebrate the birthday anniversary of the ruler, visit his tomb, and publish speeches on his importance.

What do the party members say of Tipu Sultan? Interviews with them, both those conducted by me and other publicly available interviews, as well as their talks on the subject, demonstrate that the party upholds a particular image of Tipu Sultan – an image that probably reveals as much about their perception of the past as the conditions of the present. Tipu Sultan was a “secular emperor” despite being a Muslim, one of the party members declared, a ruler under whom education was for everyone, no alcohol was being consumed, and lower castes were being taken care of (the list may perhaps be treated as a vision of today’s India that the speaker would like to materialize). Another party member also referred to Tipu Sultan as a secular ruler, under whom only 20 percent of state administration consisted of followers of Islam and, he similarly claimed, the party is open to all members and given votes by people of all religions. The party representatives that spoke to me did not put emphasis on the Islamic aspect to Tipu’s rule, but factors such as his struggle with the British, his focus on development, or his achievements in the field of rocket technology.

However, a look at the party’s activities so far shows that it has fielded mostly Muslim candidates and Muslims appear to dominate its ranks in terms of membership. Certain, if scattered, references to Islam can also be noted in the events held by the party and the statements of its members. In an interview, Shaikh Sadeque declared that another regional Muslim party, the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), should end its alliance with the Telangana Rashtra Samiti on “the issue of shariyat.”

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However, it also seems that an important part of the party’s concrete strategy is to speak of the problems of Muslim and the lowest castes, the Dalits, in one breath, and to speak of these issues mostly in secular terms. Thus, it would seem that the TSP is going the way chosen by the already-mentioned AIMIM: forging ties and building alliances with those that seek to represent the Dalits on the political stage.

India does not have a national Muslim party and has not had one since 1947. The current political circumstances are even less favorable for such a party to emerge than ever before. What the Tipu Sultan Party is doing is, perhaps, the logical conclusion in such a situation. A strong national party that expressed an uncompromising Muslim identity would be met with a significant political backlash from the dominant Hindu right. Thus, certain smaller Muslim-led parties, such as the TSP but also AIMIM, seek to cement an alliance of the downtrodden instead – between Muslim and Dalit voters – an alliance which is obviously being expressed in social, rather than religious terms. This does not mean that Islam is absent and unimportant in their rhetoric and in their political actions, however. Religion is highlighted on various occasions, such as in references to history, and it is mostly clearly emphasized when it comes to the defense of Muslim religious traditions and personal laws.

In politics, the past is usually the servant of the present. Tipu Sultan as a symbol is a clear example of this rule. For the Hindu right, he is an example of the cruelty of Muslim monarchs. For the Indian secular center and left, he is a reverse symbol: a case of religious cohabitation and a joint fight (above religious divisions) against the British. Finally, for parties dominated by Muslims, he is example that a king of the past could have been both Muslim and secular – a statement, one could add, that they are also making about themselves.