Saturday June 25, 2022 04:20 pm

The Art of War of Hyder Ali & Tipu Sultan –Lessons for Small States in the Era of the New Great Game

🕐 2022-03-20 13:35:02

The Art of War of Hyder Ali & Tipu Sultan –Lessons for Small States in the Era of the New Great Game

Parvez Karim Abbasi

The beauty about well-worn adages is that it contains a kernel of timeless truth. The oft repeated saying of “History repeats itself” implies Historical Recurrence- repetition of similar events across different time periods and geographical settings. The theme of history moving in a cyclical manner has found greater relevance in the twenty first century which has witnessed the fragmentation of American hegemony; the vigorous ascent of China and the reemergence of Russia and the growing importance of India and Turkey on the international arena. Great power competition has ushered in a period of intense rivalry (vividly described in Graham Allison’s Thucydides’s Trap) where smaller states are increasingly being cajoled, coddled, coopted and coerced  to join a particular alignment or switch existing allegiance. States caught in the middle of this titanic all-encompassing turf war, often flounder to come up with a comprehensive overarching strategy to navigate unscathed the treacherous rapids of the New Great Game.
This is where the life and works of Tipu Sultan, the oft forgotten, routinely maligned and largely ignored ruler of 18th century Mysore becomes relevant. It is unfortunate that Tipu has received a hostile press from a section of contemporary European observers (largely British) and has been demonized   by latter day saffron brigade revisionists in modern day India. The son of Hyder Ali proved to be a versatile, multifaceted, sagacious, statesman, who along with his father, proved to be a significant bulwark against British colonial expansion in peninsular India for nearly four decades. The far ranging economic, administrative and military reforms, combined with farsighted diplomatic statecraft turned Mysore from a small backwater kingdom into the most formidable adversary the victorious British East India had encountered in some time to come.
The object of the article is not to regurgitate or repeat the history of Tipu Sultan or the Mysore Sultanate, but to draw parallels with contemporaneous events and derive key insights for small states to contemplate and act upon in an ever-changing geopolitical and geostrategic milieu, where military might, economic prowess, export competiveness, competent governance, technical knowhow and scientific ability and shifting circles of alliances have acquired critical importance. Of special import for small states, suffering from security fears brought about by asymmetric balance of military power in its neighborhood, are the military strategies pursued by the two charisma rulers of the Mysore Sultanate. In an uncertain security climate, it would pay for small states to devote close attention to these strategies. 

Prospering in an age of Uncertainty
The situation in the middle of the eighteenth century was quite similar to the present geopolitical context. Effective central authority across the Indian sub-continent had all but disappeared-the Mughal emperors at Delhi had all but turned into figureheads due to self-inflicted damage brought about by internecine succession disputes, court intrigues, nepotism, corruption and unabashed hedonism. Mughal rule was also challenged  by the  rise of the rapacious Maratha confederacy, the havoc wrecked by the Iranian  military adventurer Nadir Shah, the depredations of the unruly Afghans lead by Ahmad Shah Abdali, the increasing assertiveness of the Jats, Rajputs ,Rohillas and  Sikhs across North India , the virtual independence of resource rich, populous areas of Hyderabad, Awadh and Bengal and most ominously the arrival of the  amoral seafaring opportunistic European mercantilist traders-the British, French, Dutch and the Danes. Peninsular India, before the reign of Hyder Ali, was buffeted by local and international powers, jockeying to extract greater trading privileges and economic concessions. The Maratha Confederacy and the Nizams of Hyderabad were easily the most powerful kingdoms in the Indian peninsula. On the other hand, the British and the French, operating from their bases in Madras and Pondicherry had already been actively intervening in local wars and fighting to extend their sphere of influence. Through a series of brilliant and far ranging administrative, economic and military reforms, adoption and up gradation of new military technology, careful nurturing and fostering of unity of purpose amongst the subjects of Mysore, the remarkable father and son duo managed to turn Mysore into a formidable entity in the local and international firmament. This remarkable achievement was further buttressed by shrewd   and sustained diplomatic outreach to local and foreign powers. It is a testament of the Nawabs (and later Sultan and de facto ruler) that Mysore acquired its greatest territorial limit, extending up to 80,000 square miles, including nearly the whole of Karnataka, parts of Kerala, Tamil Nadu and became kingmakers in even distant Maldives. 
The lessons small states can learn from the statecraft of Tipu Sultan and indeed his father, Hyder Ali, (during the late 18th century) which can be emulated amidst the New Great Game are: 
Military Modernization and Reform
 Mysore before 1759, was a small, weak, disunited kingdom that was subject to constant raids and extortion of the Marathas, the Nizams, rebellious and refractory local chieftains and the interventions of the armed representatives of the British and French East India Company. It is an enduring legacy of Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan to initiate sweeping military modernization and reforms, based on organization and best practices of the French, British, Portuguese and Dutch armies operating in the region. The British and French had demonstrated the strength and superiority of European led and trained armies during the three Carnatic Wars (1746-48, 1749-54, and 1756-63). Hyder Ali, while serving in those wars had the opportunity to observe up-close the tactics and modus operandi of the European armies. While moving up the ranks within the Mysorean army of the Wodeyar Rajas, Hyder initiated a series of far reaching organizational and structural reforms. There was a three pronged emphasis on building up a European style infantry armed with the latest weapons of the day, powerful long range artillery and the nucleus of a decent sized navy that could challenge western mastery of the Indian Ocean lanes. Hyder Ali was the first Indian ruler to start effective modernization of the local army along European lines. To that end, he relied primarily on French advisors, Portuguese military personnel from Goa and renegade European soldiers from the British East India Company. By the early 1780s, about 600 Europeans were in Mysore, drilling and training the local troops. Hyder Ali institutionalized the “Risalah” system which involved employing a set number of soldiers using Flintlocks (European style guns), within specified divisions of the infantry. According to contemporary European observers, Tipu’s troops “had uniforms, an officer corps, insignia, training manuals and an order of battle comparable to any European army of the day.” He had regimental colours, medals and a number of European style honors. Furthermore, a sense of purpose and unity of vision was fostered in the army, and there were very few incidents of mass desertion or defection in the Mysorean army until the fall of Srirangapatna and Tipu’s heroic death in 1799. Judging by existing records, the fighting élan and discipline and battle field maneuvers of the troops of Mysore were widely considered to be at par with their European compatriots. Frequent supervision and stringent regulations ensured discipline and unity and chain of command. 
Mysore mobilized on  a near permanent war footing and there was mass conscription in the army. Only Dervishes, Brahmins and merchants were exempt from military service. Thus,  Mysore’s army grew in size too, keeping pace with the armies fielded by the British East India Company , who could tap into the populous regions of Bengal Subah and the Kingdom of Awadh for their military personnel requirements. Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan are credited for creating the first native professional standing army in India. The Mysore army grew from 23,000 in 1760-70 to 58,000 in 1780-90.
 Cavalry until recently had been an integral component of warfare since time immemorial. Tipu Sultan’s cavalry consisted of three units, the regulars (silahdars), the regulars who supplied their own horses, and kazzaks or predatory cavalry irregulars. In 1780, Mysore’s cavalry stood at 32,000. By 1780, under Tipu, the cavalry was whittled down to 20,000 .This was partly due to the higher expense of maintaining cavalry units and Tipu’s preference for European drilled infantry and artillery. This contrasted sharply, with his father’s approach of placing greater preponderance on cavalry units for higher mobility and flexibility in battle deployments. Unlike infantry, cavalry could cover greater span of area, distances, choose where and when to engage the enemy, and retreat while maintaining cohesiveness and orderly formation. Hyder Ali, was able to use the cavalry to great effect, during the first two Anglo-Mysore wars, harrying and raiding up to the gates of Fort William in Madras. Hybridization of military tactics to suit local terrain –combination of modern and conventional  means of conducting warfare were adroitly used by the Mysore army to counter challenges posed by both local and foreign powers.
Artillery proved to be a mainstay of warfare in the Indian subcontinent, well before the advent of the Mughals. The Mysore army saw large scale deployment of artillery during its four decades frenetic wars in the Indian peninsula. Tipu placed great emphasis on his artillery corps who were equipped with different types of cannons, mortars and howitzers. Both British and French eye witness reports attest to the skill and superiority of the artillery used during battles. However, lack of uniform standardization reduced overall efficacy. This was because the army was in transition from a mediaeval to a modern one, and the process of modernization was hampered by frequent military conflicts and later on, resource constraints brought about by territorial losses.
Tipu was also acutely aware of his own military weaknesses and the strength of his opponents. He often operated guerilla campaigns based on hit and run tactics, avoiding direct conflict with his adversaries and harrying them where he was least expected. Extended supply lines of opponents often were subjected to withering assaults. This was made possible due to superlative intelligence network, which was adept at tracking enemy movement and intercepting clandestine communications. There was also the matter of using large number of draft cattle, bullocks and buffaloes to transport equipment and canons. Hyder Ali was able to traverse a distance of 162 km in 2 days. A separate breeding establishment for breeding cattle for bullocks was set up to ensure supply chain Interlinkage and facilitate rapid marches. 
While retreating, Tipu often adopted a scorched earth policy, quite similar to what the Russians did, when Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. The enemy was forced to live of the land and access to resources in newly conquered areas. A conventional force was resorting to fight a much larger and determined foe, like a non-state actor. These unconventional methods greatly stowed down enemy advances in Tipu’s domains.
In terms of creating an army with a sense of unity and fighting élan, Hyder and Tipu were even handed in recruiting people from different caste and creed, based on their merits and abilities. Though Mysore, for a period of 40 years was ruled by Muslim rulers, the kingdom would not have survived without the active cooperation and collaboration of Hindu allies and the majority Hindu populace. The powerful feudal chiefs or Polygars were active collaborators in this enterprise, just like the Junker class in Prussia during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Tipu had encouraged a good number of Hindu military and revenue authorities namely Hari Singh, Sripat Rao, Rama Rao, Appaji Ram, Mukund Rao, Purnaiah, and many more.
Both Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan were superb warriors, who also happened to be exceedingly gifted statesmen and administrators. The times they lived in were perilous and called for constant military preparedness both to rule the country and to protect it from acts of aggression within and without. Hence, the military proved to be the firm edifice on which their rule rested. Military reform and modernization helped Mysore turn from a weak state into a mighty one, whose international geostrategic importance was even valued by Napoleon Bonaparte. 

2. Adoption and improvement and effective utilization of new military technology
Any discussion of the military technology employed by the Mysore Sultanate would be incomplete without referring to the extensive usage of rockets, which inflicted great damage on the British armies and later on was adapted by them(Congreve rockets), and used against the French  during the Napoleonic wars with devastating effect on mainland Europe. Rockets have been extensively used in the Indian subcontinent by the Mughals, Mysoreans, Marathas, Polygers, Sikhs, Rajputs, Rohillas and Golcondans. Under Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan, rockets were used extensively to create havoc within enemy ranks and to repel cavalry charges. Even the legendary victor of Waterloo, Iron Duke Wellington, suffered grievously, while serving in India during the fourth Anglo Mysore war. Carrying rocket sticks tied to triangular green, white, and red flags, rocket men of the Mysore kingdom would move in a unit similar to Western military unit pennants. The number of the rocket men increased from two thousand to five thousand between the reigns of Hyder Ali and his son Tipu Sultan. Besides, there were dedicated draft camels for their transportation. Tipu’s rockets usually had iron tubes attached to a sword or bamboo pole, having a range of 1 km and in some cases maybe even up to 2.4 km. The gunpowder that was developed for the rockets was immune to the effects of moisture, rendering the use of rockets in Mysore virtually unstoppable. The abundance of bamboo forests and availability of iron ore provided uninterrupted supply of critical ingredients for Mysorean rockets. Successful use of rocket barrage can be attributed behind the defeat of the British at the Battle of Pollilur in 1780.

3. Establishing indigenous military arsenal hubs 
The Sultans of Mysore instinctively realized, that in order to build up a strong military, the state could not be entirely reliant on procurement of foreign weapons and technology. It is true Hyder Ali, relied on the French (the other paramount global power, besides the British, at the time) to reorganize and expand the artillery, arsenal and workshop. Great emphasis was placed on iron and steel production to expand weapons production. Iron and steel were mostly used in the manufacture of cannons, firearms, rockets, sword blades and horse-shoes. In Mysore, the annual production of iron per forge did not exceed 8.5 tons. Mysore yearly produced between 4,490 and 7,205 tons of iron. Tipu had established ten musket manufacturing factories (karkhanas), in Srirangapatna, Bangalore, Chitradurg and Bednur. His army used a great number of locally produced muskets, cannon-pieces and flintlocks, which were of a comparable quality with what was being produced in Europe. Quick adaption, assimilation and improvements to military technology borrowed from the West was a hallmark of Mysore.  Around 20,000 muskets were produced in Mysore annually to cater to the demands of the army. There were also factories dedicated to construction of wagons and artillery carriages. Furthermore, there were a foundry for making brass canons and machine for boring them. Mysore also acquired munitions and weapons from the French, British, Danish, Spanish and Dutch to complement the local production.

4.  Military Fiscalism-greater focus of Economic resources on military preparedness
The key to building a competent military force, in times of heightened security risk is to ensure an adequate stream of steady financing. In 1770, Hyder Ali’s dominions yielded revenue of about 0.8 million, which Tipu’s conquests increased to 2.8 in 1792. A larger domain and sphere of influence ensued greater state revenue collection. This also partially explains the increase in Mysore’s army during the 1780-90 period.  In Mysore, both Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan took steps to centralize   revenue and reduce incidence of tax evasion and the role of middle men engaged in tax farming. Both rulers needed to maintain flow of money from the tributary kings, which made the fiscal apparatus dependent on territorial expansion. To overcome the constraint, Tipu issued a set of detailed regulations aiming to nationalize a number of trades, widen tax base, and improve compliance. Concerted steps were taken to centralize state administration and collection of revenue. New commodities for cultivation were routinely introduced like sericulture (knowhow and silk worms were obtained from Bengal); trading depots were set up as far as Karachi and Basra and merchants were provided generous financial assistance and privileges to inject momentum to the economy.
Mysore, similar to many proto modern European states, practiced a variant of Fiscal Militarism-the expansion of the economy to sustain and support the military might of a country, in the face of prolonged conflict. Tipu astutely realized that the British East India Company, with the acquisition of the prosperous Bengal Subah and predatory privileges of the kingdom of Awadh, were in a far more advantageous financial position and did not have to rely exclusively on extorting tributary payments and protection money from local rulers. 
The colonial bureaucracy and British military establishment were financed by Indian revenue collections Tipu’s policies in promoting trade and expanding government revenue was similar to Frederick the Great of Prussia or even his inveterate enemies, the British during the Napoleonic Wars. Internal resource mobilization, search for new trade partners and new export markets, reduction in pilferage in revenue collection and greater centralization were the key components of Tipu’s plans to pay for the expansion of his army, which more or less remained on a war footing. Mysore’s state revenues, approximately amounted to 3 million sterling pounds a year. It was only after significant territorial loss following the Third Anglo Mysore war, was Tipu unable to keep pace with the British in terms of military preparedness. This would be one of the contributory reasons behind Tipu’s ultimate defeat and death at the end of an invading British army in 1799. 

The remarkable military achievements of Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan are too extensive to encapsulate in a single article. They truly put Mysore on the international map and gave the directors of British East India Company at London many a sleepless nights. It is fair to say that the task of colonial expansion and consolidation was made much easier after the demise of Tipu Sultan. Small states, who suffer from security concerns or are wary of irredentist designs of big neighbors in the surrounding region, may do well to emulate the carefully coordinated vision of the Mysorean Sultans. In this era of strategic ambiguity and heightened risks, with a clear breakdown in the international rules based order, economic prosperity is no guarantee regarding the strategic security of an individual nation. The fate of Kuwait in recent times shows the acute danger of a lack of military preparedness. The best bet for small nations is to look to their own strengths and to mobilize internal resources through better governance and trade competitiveness to invest in building a modern military apparatus, which would act as a deterrent to actual or putative aggression from hostile powers. Small nations, for their own interest, need to read carefully and glean pearls of wisdom from the Art of War crafted by Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan.

Parvez Karim Abbasi is a Geo-economics and Geo-politics Specialist, with an avid interest in History. He is currently Assistant Professor at the Department of Economics of East West University, Dhaka, Bangladesh. He can be reached at