Of Unsung Heroes and much admired Zeroes of History

The twists and turns of history are indeed fascinating. Part of the fascination arises from the fact that the ifs and buts of events of history would shape our present. There is another element of surprise in researching into history. As Sanjeev Sanyal has shown in his well-researched book titled Ocean of Churn, some of our favourite heroes could become zeroes and vice versa. In this book, he almost rewrites a few pages of our history. In an earlier post, I had written about how he exposed the true character of the king Ashoka. Let me give here a couple of more interesting examples from his book:
Tipu Sultan, to all of us, was a great patriot who fought the British bravely until he died on the battlefield fighting. Is all this a true portrayal of Tipu? Does he deserve all the accolades that are showered on him? Perhaps, not, according to the book. Here is Sanyal’s narrative:

Hyder Ali, father of Tipu Sultan, was a usurper to the throne of Mysore having worked as an army commander in the Wodeyar dynasty. Tipu, his son, became a king on the death of his father Hyder Ali. Right from the day one, he went about subjugating and annexing neighboring kingdoms with his huge army. Coorg in Karnataka, Calicut and adjoining areas in Kerala coast came under his savage attack. Temples and churches were systematically destroyed.  Thousands of Christians were either killed or forcibly converted to Islam. His luck ended when he turned his guns at Travancore.  All the small kingdoms sought the help of  the British and formed a  grand alliance . They launched a major offensive in which Tipu died fighting in his SriRangapattinam fort.

Sanyal quotes Tipu himself to expose him. In one of his letters to his army commanders, Tipu writes: You are to attack the Coorgs, men & women, and put them to sword….. make them prisoners and convert them to Musalmans. The slain ones will be hung upon the trees….ten years ago, about ten thousand men were hung upon the trees since which time the aforesaid trees have been waiting for men.

Supporters of Tipu point out that he had donated generously to temples in his later years. Sanyal, however, says that all this was done when his kingdom shrank in size and he became inconsequential. In any case, these acts of generosity were undertaken to erase his past misdeeds and give a good account of himself to his future detractors. This line of reasoning does look quite plausible.

To my mind, history can be interpreted depending upon one’s perspective. If one views Tipu as one giving a tough fight to the British, he would turn into a freedom fighter while all the other kingdoms that he subjugated become villains of the piece who sided with the British. On the other hand, if one considers the atrocities committed by him on Christians and Hindus including the destruction of temples, the last fight may be viewed as a battle between two evils – the British and Tipu with the small Hindu kingdoms supporting the former. It’s up to the historians to make a judgment.

Now let me narrate the not so well known story of Marthanda Verman who ruled over Trivancore about half a century before Tipu’s time. Sensing danger from the Dutch, he focused on building a strong army which paid rich dividends when the Dutch led by the commander Lannoy attacked . Marthanda’s strong army repulsed the Dutch offensive and Lennoy’s men had to face a humiliating defeat in the famous battle of Colachel. Lannoy surrendered and a pillar was erected in Colachel signifying the surrender of Lannoy. Interestingly, after the battle, Marthanda took Lannoy as his commander and asked him to completely modernize his army which the latter readily agreed to do.

This story is very significant considering the fact that this was the first time that an Asian army trounced an European army. From that time onwards, the Dutch influence in the Indian Ocean was on the decline. It is widely believed that but for Marthanda’s brave efforts to build a strong army, Dutch would have replaced the British in India in which case I would perhaps be writing this blog in the Dutch language.

Today, Tipu is remembered by us as a hero who fought the British, while Marthanda Varman is not even a recognizable name. The pillar in Colachel erected to commemorate the victory of Marthanda Varman is also in very bad shape.(Today, Colachel is a small  sleepy fishing town in Kerala)



Published in: on September 25, 2016 at 4:37 pm  Leave a Comment  
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