Unfazed by last year’s clashes during the birth anniversary celebrations of Tipu Sultan, the 18th century Muslim ruler of Mysuru, the Congress government in Karnataka has decided to hold the event again this year on November 10.

Mindful of the opposition to the plan, the Karnataka government has requested the Centre to provide 1,600 paramilitary personnel to help maintain the peace on that day.

The legacy of Tipu Sultan is entangled in a divisive rhetoric of communal politics, and the government announcement has been met with strong opposition from Hindutva and Christian groups.

While Hindutva groups call the monarch the “butcher of Hindus”, Mangalorean Christians accuse the government of whitewashing documented evidence that the ruler forcibly converted their ancestors to Islam, and killed scores for resisting.

Several Christian groups have decided to take to the streets to protest against the state’s plans to commemorate Tipu Jayanti.

On Tuesday, the BJP launched agitations across Karnataka and created road blockades in the sensitive Kodagu district, located to the west of Mysuru, where two people, including a Vishwa Hindu Parishad supporter, were killed when clashes erupted during last year’s celebrations. The clashes created a wide chasm between different communities and it took weeks for normalcy to return to the region.

This year, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Bharatiya Janata Party have tried to add a caste element to their opposition to the celebrations by mobilising a section of Dalits – who claim their ancestors fought against the monarch – to join the protests.

Fight over legacy

Several people have questioned the Congress government’s insistence on holding the controversial event. Earlier this month, a writ petition seeking a stay on the official celebrations came up before the Karnataka High Court. Though the court refused to issue a stay, saying it was for the executive to decide on such matters, it made some crucial observations.

"Tipu Sultan was not a freedom fighter, but a monarch who fought the British to safeguard his interests," the court said.

The court also wondered why the government was persisting with the idea of a celebration when it was clear that the event posed a threat to peace in several parts of the state.

The court’s statement about the ruler’s legacy is at the heart of the controversy over Tipu Sultan.

There are divergent views on this legacy. While one section, especially Muslims, view him as a freedom fighter who fought bravely against the British, others have challenged this narrative by pointing to accounts of his ruthlessness in dealing with dissent.

The portrayal of Tipu Sultan as an oppressive tyrant cuts across communities.

Mangalorean Catholics remember him for keeping 60,000 of their community members captive at Seringapatnam near Mysuru between 1784 and 1799. This is considered one of the darkest periods in the community’s history, and is part of their folklore.

British accounts, primarily that of Mark Wilks, an administrator of the British East India Company, pointed to Islamic fanaticism in Tipu Sultan’s targeting of people of other faiths. Wilks made these observations in his book, Historical Sketches of South India: Attempt to Trace the History of Mysoor.

Thomas Paul, another British historian, suggested that the ruler directed his hatred for the British towards the local Christians.

Modern historians, however, have taken a more sympathetic view of the monarch. Those like Kate Brittlebank have attributed political reasons for his persecution of certain communities, while pointing out that Tipu Sultan treated those of other faiths within his dominion with respect.

Hundreds of inscriptions across South India record the generosity of Tipu Sultan and the patronage he extended to Hindu and Christian places of worship. His association with the Sringeri Mutt – established by the Hindu philosopher Adi Shankaracharya in the eighth century – is borne out in the many gifts he had sent to the Hindu institution. He maintained a cordial equation with the Sringeri pontiff all his life.

Politics over history

Given the controversial nature of the ruler, many were taken by surprise when Chief Minister Siddaramaiah first decided to make Tipu Sultan's anniversary celebrations a state event last year. While smaller and more subdued celebrations have always taken place over the years, the entry of the government immediately gave the event a political tone.

The Bharatiya Janata Party views this as an attempt by the Congress to appease Muslims. The party, and Hindutva organisations like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, decided to make this a Muslims versus others issue, which culminated in last year’s clash in Kodagu in which one person was killed.

On Tuesday, in an attempt to expose the alleged hypocrisy of the BJP, Janata Dal (Secular) leader Basavaraj Horatti released old photographs of former Chief Minister BS Yeddyurappa participating in celebrations connected to Tipu Sultan when the Bharatiya Janata Party was in power in the state in 2008.

Thus, after last year's clashes, Tipu Sultan’s birth anniversary has become more a matter of ego than history for both the Congress and the BJP.

The event has also provided a platform for fringe elements to make their presence felt. Many local Hindu and Kannadiga groups have come together to form the Tipu Virodhi Horata Samithi, which has called for a bandh in Kodagu on Thursday.

Despite the threat that the official celebrations pose to law and order in the district, Siddaramaiah has decided to go ahead with the event and make it an important part of the government's calendar. His ability to pull off the celebrations without trouble this year is being viewed as a test of his power to keep Hindutva groups in check, and maintain his secular image.

With Assembly elections in the state scheduled for 2018, it is possible that the Congress is of the view that backtracking on Tipu Sultan’s anniversary celebrations could agitate the 11% Muslim population in Karnataka, a crucial vote bank that could help tip the scales in at least 40 of the state’s 224 constituencies. In a close race, these seats will matter.

At the moment, it looks like Novembers in Karnataka will continue to be dominated by Tipu Sultan.