The Tiger of Mysore

In Karnataka, the sword of Tipu Sultan still cuts

Published September 26, 2006 7:03PM (EDT)

In the south Indian state of Karnataka, tempers are flaring over the legacy of Tipu Sultan, who ruled the Kingdom of Mysore from 1782 to 1799. D.H. Shankaramurthy, the minister of higher education, wants references to the Muslim ruler excised from educational textbooks, arguing that he repressed Hindus and their local language, Kannada. "Our children should be taught only good things in history which will help them grow as individuals and contribute to the society. Why should we teach them about anti-Kannada people like Tipu Sultan?"

There's been some pushback. Tipu Sultan fought three wars against the British during his reign, and died in battle during the last, thus granting him the posthumous status of nationalist martyr and patriot. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, he "was exceptional for having never allied himself with the English against any other Indian ruler." But some Englishmen did not remember him kindly; 19th century historical fiction writer G. A. Henty wrote that he "revelled in acts of the most abominable cruelty. It would seem that he massacred for the very pleasure of massacring, and hundreds of British captives were killed by famine, poison, or torture, simply to gratify his lust for murder." Meanwhile, South Asian Muslims generally recall him as a tolerant statesman, a learned scholar (and linguist) who was devoted to the livelihood of his subjects. The Wikipedia entry on Tipu Sultan first states that "Tipu was an enlightened ruler, the sheet-anchor of whose state policy was the well-being of all his subjects irrespective of caste, creed or class. He took his stand on the bedrock of humanity, regarding all his subjects as equal citizens worthy to live in peace, harmony and concord." But then, in a telling note, the warning "The neutrality of this section is disputed" has been appended to the section titled "Religious Persecution."

It is a cliché to note that one man's freedom fighter is another man's terrorist, but in India, such historical debates are of no small consequence. Battles over Tipu are not new in India -- Hindu nationalists sued to stop a television series, "The Sword of Tipu Sultan," that they declared was an outrageous whitewash. But the current spat is relevant becaust it is taking place against the backdrop of a larger war against the English language in Karnataka. Earlier this week, the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata political party announced the summary closing of 2,100 schools that had been using English as the language of instruction, declaring that they were in violation of a 1992 order that allowed the formation of new schools only if they taught in Kannada. (Thanks to the IndiaEconomy blog for the tip.)

One explanation for the crackdown on English is supposedly resentment at the wealthy information technology elite who have flocked from all over India to the software hub of Bangalore. But a more fundamental reason is Hindu nationalism, which aspires to remove all traces of both English and Muslim imperialism from India. That's a pretty ambitious goal, given that the Mughals conquered India in the 16th century, and Indian proficiency in English is considered one of the nation's great advantages in the global economy.

In 1961, Jawaharlal Nehru noted that "India's ills" were "communalism, casteism, regionalism, and linguism." Surely there is no other nation on earth that is split in so many directions, so profoundly, as India. It is one of the great historical ironies that many Indians consider English, the language of the imperialist invader, to be a crucial unifying force -- the one thing that can bring together a billion-plus people who speak at least 18 different major languages. But that is not the only irony associated with English imperialism in India. While researching this topic, I was diverted by DesiPundit to an absolutely fascinating post on the "discovery" of India's pre-Islamic history at Sid's Blog.

At the time of the British conquest of India, local knowledge of the glories of the Hindu imperial era prior to the Mughal conquest, writes Siddhartha Shome, "simply did not exist. Today it may be difficult for us to imagine, but till as recently as 1830 -- not quite forty years before Gandhis birth -- Emperor Ashoka was an unknown name."

To whom does Shome give the credit for rediscovering India's pre-Islamic history? The English! Shome recounts the tales of Sir William Jones, the founder of the Asiatic Society in 1784, and James Princep, who were both instrumental in unearthing the long-buried details of India's amazing past. Among other things, Shome quotes Jones' "first great insight" into the relationship of Sanskrit to European languages."

"The Sanskrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than Greek, more copious than Latin and more exquisitely refined than either; yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of the verbs, and in the forms of grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong, indeed, that no philologer could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists."

How does one reconcile these paradoxes? English, the language of the conqueror, seen simultaneously as a means of national unification, a weapon for linguistic repression, and a vital tool for flourishing in the age of globalization. The English, imperialists and colonialists, but also Prometheans of a sort, helping to relight a fire quenched by a previous wave of imperialists. English schools, attended by children of parents wanting a better life for their familes, but shut down by a ruling party on the warpath against foreign cultural hegemony. Tipu Sultan, lauded for fighting the English, condemned for persecuting the Hindu.

The answer, most likely, is that these contradictions are not reconcilable. But it's probably still always a good idea to learn more than one language, whether it be English or Sanskrit.

UPDATE: 15 out of 30 Karnataka government ministers send their children to English-language schools.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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