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Dhaka Tribune

The sword of Tipu Sultan

Update : 19 Dec 2016, 10:47 AM

Many people of Bangladesh are familiar with The Sword of Tipu Sultan, an extremely popular TV series (an Indian historical drama dubbed into Bengali) which was telecast in BTV in the early 90s (even now, its repeat telecast continues).

It was a portrayal of the life and times of Tipu Sultan (1750-1799), ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore in Southern India, who is mostly renowned for immense bravery in the wars against British colonial forces.

As recognised by the British as well in their “National Army Museum” scripts, Tipu Sultan was one of the most formidable Indian opponents the British ever faced, and his death removed major blocks to their conquest of the sub-continent.

He was the first Indian ruler to obtain martyrdom while fighting in the battleground against the British in 1799. Despite having the scope of safely fleeing away after being hugely outnumbered by the attacking British and their allied forces, he decided to fight until death.

On November 10, the Karnataka State government in India (most of Tipu’s kingdom, including Mysore, now belongs to that state) officially celebrated Tipu Sultan’s birthday. Tipu Sultan is mostly remembered for his courage, political skills, leadership charisma, and military tactics.

The Treaty of Mangalore, which he signed in 1794 with the British East India Company, was the last occasion when an Indian king dictated terms to the British.

However, there are other significant aspects of his tenure as well. As the king of Mysore, Tipu Sultan introduced a number of unique endeavours such as administrative reforms (he was the first Indian sovereign who adopted Western administration methods), a new land revenue system which initiated the growth of the Mysore silk industry, promoted trade, developed rockets, and built Navy forces.

Still some inspiration may come from the historical examples of Tipu Sultan, who showed that it is possible for any nation to emerge and progress from scratch, even in a hostile scenario without any significant external help

A careful review of such revolutionary measures from an 18th century Indian King leads to an interesting question: Was modernisation of the Indian sub-continent possible without colonial rule?

There is no doubt of the immense suffering and damage colonial rule has caused to the people here. However, from a different perspective, British rule is also sometimes credited for “modernising this region.”

Questions arise regarding how much time it could take for the Indian sub-continent to adopt things like the railway, telephone, modern health care, or even democracy without British rule.

This region did have some global dominance in several areas like basic science, architectural excellence, agricultural prosperity during the ancient and early-medieval ages; but not during late-medieval ages when European powers were gradually expanding control almost all over the world through their business and military supremacy.

While Europe was rapidly advancing through the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution, the Indian sub-continent was severely falling behind due to continuous internal conflicts and lack of true development.

Tipu Sultan was one of the few exceptions in this regard. His vision during that period seems to be well ahead of his time.

He took great interest in the promotion of industry and commerce. He set up nearly 30 factories in Mysore, some in other parts of India, and even a few in the Gulf (in Aden, Jeddah, Basra, and Muscat).

He tried to establish trade and military relations with other nations like the Ottoman Empire, Persia, and, of course, France (as enemies of Britain, France was Tipu’s greatest ally who provided him significant assistance to enhance military and other areas). Tipu also built a strong navy force, which was rare among the Indian kingdoms.

Tipu Sultan greatly facilitated critical innovations to develop “Mysorean rockets,” which became very effective in warfare. After Tipu’s defeat and death in his final battle, the British captured a number of the Mysorean rockets, which ultimately became influential in British rocket development.

As stated by former Indian president and prominent nuclear scientist Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, Tipu Sultan has been hailed by NASA as a hero of warfare rocketry.

Obviously, as a ruler, Tipu Sultan is not free from controversy. Particularly, in recent years, he has been continuously portrayed as a religious bigot by right-wing Hindu ideological blocs in India, who accuse him for oppressing minorities in his kingdom.

However, time and situation created more enemies (which included not only the British, but also his neighboring Indian kingdoms) for Tipu Sultan than friends.

So it is quite amazing that in a relatively backward region in the late 18th century, being surrounded by foes all around, how could a ruler initiate so many innovative and farsighted endeavours? There are many other examples like this in different parts of the world.

One may wonder, what is the relevance of such history in the current scenario? Over 200 years have passed since the era of Tipu Sultan, and during this period there have been, naturally, many transformations.

We have observed colonial dominance all over the world by the European powers during 19th century and first half of the 20th century (when two world wars took place), Cold War between US-led Western bloc and USSR-led communist bloc during the second half of the 20th century, complete global dominance of the US after fall of USSR, and instabilities through various forms in various parts of the world in the early 21st century.

Probably, we are now in another crucial point of transition, with Brexit and Donald Trump.

Questions now arise: What will happen if the US stops funding and abandons the global climate deal? What will happen if the US withdraws from various bilateral and regional trade agreements? What will happen if the US reduces military support to different allies?

European Union Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker recently said: “The election of Trump poses the risk of upsetting intercontinental relations in their foundation and in their structure.”

In such a scenario, although it may appear a bit distant, still some inspiration may come from the historical examples of Tipu Sultan, who showed that it is possible for any nation to emerge and progress from scratch, even in a hostile scenario without any significant external help, if there is strong vision and determination.

So whatever path the Donald Trump-led US takes, we can hope that the world will continue to move forward. Things can become more challenging than before, but there is no reason to lag behind.

Azfar Adib is a telecom professional, ICT analyst, and history enthusiast.

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