Maximillian Isidore Robespierre and Tipu Sultan: Virtuous or Villainous

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Some regard Tipu as the premier freedom fighter, while others tend to view him in the same manner as a section views Robespierre. An ardent marauding communalist who was responsible for the deaths of several Hindus and Christians. And the debate is getting uglier by the day. Prof. Ashoka draws parallels between Robespierre and Tipu, revisiting history, exclusively in .

Maximillian Isidore Robespierre is generally regarded as one of the evilest figures in modern history. My grew up believing that his crimes were qualitatively similar to those of Adolf Hitler although confined to the of and certainly spread over a narrower time space. 

The Reign of Terror that he launched after the French Revolution makes a reading. Along with Jean-Paul Marat and George Jacques Danton, Robespierre remains one of the most seminal influences. Experts tend to regard Marat, a failed physician /scientist as the most ruthless of the three but as he was stabbed to during the early stages, it was Robespierre who had the most lasting impact. And much of it was unbelievably negative. There is a general historical consensus that the Reign of Terror was primarily responsible for the eventual accession of Napoleon. Both Danton and Robespierre were guillotined.

It, therefore, came as a shock when, during my first visit to Paris, I came across a Robespierre Society of his admirers that actively extolls his virtues and organises seminars to expound his virtues. Out of curiosity, I attended one of their meetings and was flabbergasted to learn that the historical figure that I loathed – and continue to loathe – had some sterling philosophical ideas that were way ahead of his times. I came to know that it was Robespierre who was probably the most vociferous opponent of slavery and actually advocated the abolition of what he described as the ‘ultimate human abomination’ in all the French colonies – a position that earned him far more enemies than friends. He was an abolitionist way ahead of Wilberforce and Lincoln.   And from a personal perspective, I was fascinated to learn that he was as ardent an opponent of the death penalty as I am! 

I still tend to regard him as an evil figure for what he effected in Paris but am compelled to accept that there was a side to his persona as well. 

Why am I stating this! It is because of the raging debate over the planned function in Karnataka to commemorate Tipu Sahib. Some regard him as the premier freedom fighter while others tend to view him in the same manner as a section views Robespierre. An ardent marauding communalist who was responsible for the deaths of several Hindus and Christians. And the debate is getting uglier by the day!

Tipu is part of modern history. Reams have been written about him. Both sides have their own proponents and they with conviction. But is it so difficult to accept that he was a complex character who was a bit of both!

There is a general consensus that Tipu indeed was virulently anti-British; even his contemporary opponents agree on that. And for that very reason, Napoleon had written a letter to him to seek his assistance in fighting the British in the Indian subcontinent. His critics argue that he was fighting the British to save his own fiefdom. Quite frankly that argument does not impress me. After all the accepted freedom fighters like Kunwar Singh and Lakshmi Bai took up cudgels against the British as their feudal overlordship was being threatened. But they did fight the British and did so with utmost valour.

In the absence of a consensus, the best solution would be to accept that Tipu was a complex human being with both positive and negative human traits. There are obvious problems in making a moral evaluation of a historical individual using contemporary moral yardsticks. 

What is dubious though is the financial support that the proposed function is receiving from the state government. That clearly is political in its motivation. The set-aside, I would have no problems Tipu admirers extolling his virtues the same way as Robespierre admirers do so. And his opponents would have similar freedom to criticize him without either side rubbing the other the wrong way! Surely that is achievable!

We have enough contemporary conundrums to navigate through which require our immediate attention. In the scheme of things that should in my view hold priority over correcting historical wrongs! And as in most historical debates -ancient, medieval or modern- absolute consensus can never be achieved! And I state that as an elected Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and a student of the history of science/medicine where the scope for disagreement is far less than political history!

There is no consensus on whether Cromwell should be treated as a hero or a villain in British history. Fierce debates do take place sporadically but there is no bad blood between those who hold opposing views.

We all grew up believing that General Robert Lee, the Confederate Army Commander was not just a great soldier but a moral figure who was fighting an amoral cause because of his personal affiliations. Now we are being told that he was a ruthless butcher although his admirers persist to venerate him.

As an existential philosopher, I can only hope we can collectively move ourselves from being completely fixated in our past to the extent that our present and our children’s futures carry no meaning for us!

©Prof. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

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Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad is a physician /psychiatrist holding doctorates in pharmacology, history and philosophy plus a higher doctorate. He is also a qualified barrister and geneticist. He is a regular columnist in several newspapers, has published over 100 books and has been described by the Cambridge News as the ‘most educationally qualified in the world’.