For Tipu Sultan’s kin, … life is a battleground

Published — Thursday 9 January 2014

Descendants of Tipu Sultan, who ruled most of the southern parts of India and died fighting the British in 1799, are now living in utter poverty despite being heirs to vast estates worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

  Chamanara Begum

Chamanara Begum

’Tipu Sultan: Misery of History,’ a documentary about India’s legendary warrior who perfected rocket artillery, tells the story of his descendants living in slums, some of them pulling rickshaws on the streets of Kolkata and working as domestic helps to make a living.

The 30-minute documentary shot in India and the UK also has historians and researchers explaining the legacy of Sultan whom the British National Army Museum named among the ten Greatest Enemy Commanders that they ever faced, including Napoleon Bonaparte and Kamal Atatürk.

After his defeat, the British rounded up and deported to the then-Calcutta the children of the “Tiger of Mysore” who challenged their rule in India, sent ambassadors to Napoleon in Paris seeking alliance and whom Sir Walter Scott hailed as a legendary warrior.

Other royalties who made peace with the British also shunned them for their open defiance against the invaders, resisting them for 35 years through military genius and statesmanship, and their fortunes declined over the years.
“It took six months for me to finish the work as they were reluctant to speak out,” said Abbas Panakkal, a visiting fellow at the Griffith University, Australia, who made the documentary. “We also went through historical documents to find that many of the allegations against him were wrong”.

The film was screened before a select audience, including journalists and historians, in Kozhikkode recently.
“They live a miserable life and some people exploit them left and right. They even prevented us from shooting at those places,” says Panakkal.

In London, references from Susan Stronge’s Tipu’s Tiger and long discussions with her also came handy for him.
“She helped us giving more reference materials from their collections,” he adds.

Illiterate and left to a hand to mouth existence, many of these “princes” struggle to make both ends meet despite being heirs to Kolkata’s precious pieces of real estate.

“I have been working for the past five years to feed my family and I’ll work till my body allows me to work,” says Anwar Ali Shah, the seventh generation descendant.

He earns an average of one to $1.25 a day, offering a cheap mode of transport to his customers on his worn-out cycle-rickshaw as the Prince Gulam Mohamed Trust that took over their estates refuse to pay for their education or save them from penury.

“I have two children, one boy and a girl. I have to send them to school. I leave everything to God,” he says as he rides his rickshaw through the Prince Anwar Shah Road, named after his great grandfather Prince Gulam Mohammed Anwar Shah.

His mother Chamanara Begum, elder brothers Dilwar Shah and Sanwar Shah, also a cycle-rickshaw puller, and younger brother Hussein Ali Shah, an upholstery worker, all live in the dilapidated structure on the same dirty street.
“I run a small business which helps me to meet my need for daily food,” says Hussein Ali Shah.

Dilwar Shah, the eldest who runs a small eatery, says he is in a greater trouble as he had to look after a bigger family. He claims that the family’s properties were under illegal occupation but poverty makes it unable to approach the court.

He also cherishes a dream to visit Mysore, the country that the family once ruled. He had heard of big palaces, forts and gardens built by Sultan who defeated British forces under Sir Hector Munro at the Battle of Pollilur in 1780 known as the Second Mysore War.

“This is our property, the wealth of our great grandfather Prince Gulam Mohammed (the youngest son of Tipu Sultan). Acres of land are grabbed by these people,” he says.

Anwersha, the caretaker of the sprawling Tipu Sultan Masjid, says the government extends no support though it was declared as a heritage property a few years back.

“The government provides nothing to maintain this. So we rely on donations as we have to maintain the mosque in any case,” he says. “We are born here and we’ll die here”.

A few are a bit better off. They are educated and maintain the legacy of the family by collecting historical materials such as old coins and documents related to the phenomenal administrative reforms that Tipu Sultan and his father Hyder Ali undertook.

“Basically, we are very proud of our ancestry. I have the blood of Tipu Sultan flowing in my veins,” says Bakhtiar Shah, a lawyer by profession, who leaves everything to destiny. “On the other side, you know, we cannot just sit back and relax and hope things will happen on their own”.

After his fall more than 200 years back, Sultan’s sons and their families were rounded up, jailed and later exiled to Calcutta where they inherited large estates that their father had bought.

That included Royal Calcutta Golf Club and Tollygunge Club that are worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
“We have to help ourselves and I wouldn’t blame (anybody). There’s something called destiny,” says the lawyer, who takes pride in the contributions his ancestors made in the field of education, technology, diplomacy and statecraft.

Correcting misconceptions about his secular credentials, the documentary states that majority of Tipu’s key officers were non-Muslims and even his chief spokesperson and treasurer were Hindus and he generously helped the Hindu temples and institutions.

Panakkal says the documentary is part of its initiative to promote secularism and interfaith harmony. His team, including cameramen Ajeeb Komachi, traveled to historical sites, museums and monuments related to the ruler.
“Much has been said and cited in our own records referring to Tipu Sultan as a successful Islamic ruler who never hesitated to massacre the Hindu population. But in my research I found that he was a generous ruler who allowed grants to temples,” he said.


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