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Tipu Jayanti debate: Akbar is the hero India should really celebrate

The Mughal emperor ticks none of the boxes of today’s identity politics – regional, linguistic, caste-based or religious.

When one attempts to locate statues of the Mughal emperor Akbar through a Google search, one is offered images of sculptures of monarchs such as Edward VII, Hemu, Krishnadevaraya, Shivaji, Rani Durgavati, Rana Pratap and Raja Bhoja, but none of Akbar. Google’s response hints at what one might already suspect from experience, which is that no statue of India’s greatest ruler exists anywhere in the land.

The controversy over Karnataka’s forthcoming Tipu Sultan Jayanti celebration made me reconsider why we celebrate an assortment of kings while ignoring the giant among them. I had assumed it was simply anti-Muslim bias (and when I speak of bias, I’m thinking of the culture at large rather than the political configuration which proclaims its prejudice), but considering the commemoration of Tipu’s birth anniversary that cannot be the sole explanation.

Freedom fighters

So, what does Tipu have that Akbar does not? The Tiger of Mysore shares two qualities with Indian rulers who show up in that Google search. First, he has a regional identity that can be linked with a state in the modern Indian republic, in his case Karnataka. The cults of Maharana Pratap and Shivaji, while spread widely across the country, are at their most potent in Rajasthan and Maharashtra, respectively.

Second, Tipu, like Shivaji and Rana Pratap, can be viewed as a fighter for freedom. In the case of the two Hindu kings, the fight is presented as being against a foreign invader. With Tipu, the enemy is the British empire. He was notably prescient about British designs, making every effort to round up allies against the Brits, from his neighbours the Marathas and the Nizam of Hyderabad to long shots like Napoleon and the Ottomans. However acute his understanding of the prevalent situation, classifying him as an anti-imperialist freedom fighter before the British empire even existed is a questionable move.

Tipu’s faith

Tipu’s legacy was cemented by his greatest foes. The British demonised him at first, but after he had died fighting, as surprisingly few monarchs do, gradually recomposed him as a valiant and worthy adversary. His record in battle as a whole, though, was patchy, with almost as many setbacks as victories. Within his core kingdom he was a revered figure whose death was lamented in folk songs. Regions he invaded such as Coorg and Malabar have a rather different memory, of a cruel king who sometimes converted Hindus by force.

Tipu’s religious beliefs were unconventional. He invented a calendar of his own, whose Year 1 began with Mohammad’s claim to prophethood rather than his migration to Medina. He frequently invoked Ali, a key figure in Shia belief, and named coins for Shia Imams as well as Sunni Caliphs. He was superstitious and recorded a number of his dreams, hoping to extract signs and omens from them. The dreams provide the same sort of mixed messages as his waking life.

In one, he speaks of wanting to “punish the unbelievers thoroughly”. In another, he prays, “O God, in the hills the unbelievers of the land of the enemy have forbidden fasting and prayer; convert them all to Islam, so that the religion of Thy Messenger may gain in strength.” In interpreting a dream where he recites the names of Allah over almonds and shaligram stones, he writes, “Like their idols who were embracing Islam, the unbelievers also would enter the fold of Islam.” In contrast, he also recounts a remarkable dream in which he enters a broken-down temple full of idols whose eyes move like those of living humans. After a female idol speaks to him, he replies, “That is fine, do keep yourself occupied with the remembrance of God.” And orders his men to repair the temple.

False equivalence

Tipu’s life and writings provide ballast both to Hindutva ideologues as well as secular-minded Indians. Right-wingers greatly exaggerate Tipu’s crimes in painting him a fanatic, but there is also a danger of secularists falling into the trap of excusing the inexcusable in an effort to absolve Tipu. It is common on the Left these days to explain away temple desecrations by pointing to similar acts committed by Hindu armies. In the case of Tipu, this involves the desecration of the Sringeri Math by soldiers in the Maratha army. Shoaib Daniyal writes:

“In 1791, therefore, the Marathas, under the command of Raghunath Rao Patwardhan invaded the Mysore district of Bednur. Here, they proceeded to sack the Sringeri monastery. Attacking temples during war wasn’t exactly unusual (for example, the Maratha attack on the Tirupati shrine in 1759 is little remembered).”

There are a couple of half-truths here. Raghunath Rao Patwardhan and the Peshwas, who were de facto heads of the Maratha empire, were Brahmins, and the last thing they would have done was to sack one of the foremost bastions of Brahminism. The Marathas had as part of their forces groups of Lamani tribals and of Pindaris, former Mughal soldiers turned mercenaries. The mainly Muslim Pindaris were paid no salary, making their money from looting territories the Marathas invaded. In 1791, the Sringeri Math bore the brunt of Pindari and Lamani attacks.

The Peshwa, distraught at news of the attack, apologised to the head of the Math and offered compensation, though there is no record of any compensation having been delivered. It might be that the Peshwa, unable to extract loot from the Pindaris and reluctant to pay from his own pocket, pulled a Donald Trump on the Sringeri swami. It was left to Tipu to provide succour to the Math’s surviving residents.

The story of Tipu’s own destruction of temples and churches is rather different. However few these may have been, they were deliberately targeted by the king himself, with no apology or compensation offered afterwards.

The story of the Marathas’ attack on Tirupati is even less like standard-issue Islamic iconoclasm than the Sringeri episode. The Marathas simply took control of the temple complex without disturbing its ritual sanctity in any way. Not long after, they moved out, leaving the Tirupati shrine perfectly intact.

The effort to find an equivalence between Hindu and Muslim rulers with respect to shrine desecration is a losing battle, even with an arsenal of misconstruals and half-truths. The rearguard, then, is to minimise the count of Muslim desecrations through fair means and foul, which is what Richard Eaton does. The last ditch argument is that we cannot judge kings like Tipu by modern standards. The problem with this last assertion is that one does not have to judge temple desecrations by today’s standards to find them morally inexcusable. All one has to do is judge them by the standards laid down by Akbar.

Akbar’s record

Unlike Tipu, Akbar’s military career consisted of victory piled on victory. The Mughal army did not ever lose a major battle that he led. He consolidated the empire he inherited, and expanded it relentlessly. Unlike his ancestor Timur, who was a peerless general but interested only in conquest, Akbar set up an efficient administration based on a transferable cadre of nobles. Most important, he gradually transcended the limitations of his faith to become a truly national ruler. To begin with, he eliminated religious taxes on Hindu pilgrims and peasants. He proceeded to rein in the power of the Muslim clergy. He propounded a theory of kingship based on the principles of sulh-i-kul (universal peace), rah-i-aql (the path of reason), and rawa-i-rozi (maintenance of livelihood). Sulh-i-kul was the first political explication of multiculturalism, calling for cordiality, mutual respect and compromise between subjects of different faiths, with the king as neutral arbiter. Akbar propounded it at a time when Europe was riven by religious conflict following the Protestant revolution inaugurated by Martin Luther precisely 500 years ago.

The path of reason allowed Akbar to set in motion a few key social reforms and suggest others. He outlawed sati, and ended the practice of keeping or selling prisoners as slaves. He frowned on the prohibition of widow remarriage in some communities and on child marriage. He believed daughters deserved a larger share of their father’s property than the Quran prescribed.

In recognising the duty of the king to citizens, Akbar envisioned the monarch as part of a bargain or unspoken contract with subjects in which he received legitimacy and tax revenue in return for providing peace and security. Taken as a whole, his ideas strongly parallel the ecumenism, reformist goals, and welfare measures of modern India. The state’s attitude to religious faith, for better or worse, resembles the secularism of Western liberal thought based on atomised individuals far less than it does the society of mutual accommodation conceived by Akbar.

Akbar’s ideas travelled to Europe while he was still in his prime. It would be difficult to claim that kings like Tipu were unaware of them. If somebody like Tipu chose to desecrate shrines, however infrequently, despite this history, we have every right to judge him without recourse to modern ideas, even as we counter right-wingers who exaggerate his cruelty.

My sense is that Tipu Sultan Jayanti is unlikely to be a big vote winner for the Congress. It might even end up being a net loss if the BJP’s hate campaign is effective. I wish the Congress would be less like Tipu and more like Akbar. But all politics today, Left or Right, seems to be identity politics, whether that identity be regional, linguistic, caste-based, or religious. Akbar ticks none of those boxes, and is therefore out in the cold, without a statue or an anniversary celebration to his name.

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