In 1940, as Mahomed Ali Jinnah laid out his vision of the Two Nation Theory in Lahore, he argued that Hindus and Muslims in the subcontinent have separate pasts. “It is quite clear,” said the soon-to-be Qaid-e-Azam, “that Hindus and Mussalmans derive their inspiration from different sources of history”.
More than anything else from the 1940s, this unfortunate – and erroneous – formulation has stuck on across the subcontinent, raising its head most recently in Karnataka, where a furious debate rages over celebrating the birth anniversary of a 18th-century ruler of Mysore, Tipu Sultan.
Two-nation theory versus reality
Even as the ruling Congress party in the state is adamant about celebrating the birthday of the monarch on November 10 – spurred in large part with an eye on Muslim votes – the Bharatiya Janata Party is organising anti-Tipu rallies and has declared the occasion to be a “black day”. In a mirror image to the Congress, the BJP hopes its stand will attract Hindu votes. “Very often the hero of one is a foe of the other,” Jinnah had said in Lahore, little aware that this would describe Kannadiga politics eight decades later.
Yet, the historical record is far more complex than modern politics would have you believe. For example, where does the tale of a Muslim Tipu Sultan as the defender of a Hindu temple fit? Especially when he was defending it from the Marathas, who are often seen in modern India as archetypal Hindutva heroes, battling for a mythical proto-nation.
Third Anglo-Mysore War
In the late 1700s, the subcontinent was in flux. The Mughals, while still seen as token sovereigns, had lost actual power. Any hope of the Marathas replacing them was dashed at the Third Battle of Panipat, where the Afghans won a crushing victory. As subcontinental powers declined, the star of the British rose.
In 1789, the British teamed up with their allies, the Marathas and the Hyderabad Nizam, to pluck out the last thorn in their side: the king of Mysore, Tipu Sultan, who had, more than any other ruler, understood the grave threat the East Indian Company posed.
The Marathas and Tipu Sultan did not like each other very much and their hostilities predated this war. In fact, Hyder Ali, Tipu’s father, first made his mark by taking the fort of Devanhalli (close to Bengaluru) from the Marathas in a bitterly fought battle.
In 1791, therefore, the Marathas, under the command of Raghunath Rao Patwardhan invaded the Mysore district of Bednur. Here, there 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). But this was no ordinary place of worship. It had been founded a thousand years before by the father of Hindu Advaita philosophy, Adi Shankaracharya. The monk set up an abbey in each corner of the subcontinent: Shringeri in the South, Puri in the East, Dwaraka in the West and Joshimath in the North.
Given this lineage, the Sringeri monastery had been patronised by rulers – both Hindu and Muslim – ever since it was founded. Tipu continued this tradition and maintained a close relationship with the abbey, sending it valuable gifts and awarding it tax-free land. In fact, in his personal correspondence, Tipu would address the monastery’s swamy, head reverentially as “jagadguru” or “ruler of the world”.