Published in The Hindu, dated September 14, 2017
‘That a Telugu merchant should command the (Vijayangar) Rajah’s forces is singular enough, but that the Nawab should employ a general of that race when ample selection from Moslem warriors was open to him is even more surprising’ goes an account of the East India Company about an impending battle in the vicinity of Madras, sometime around 1656.
Those were the early days of the Company at Madras. With their limited understanding of India, they perhaps found it odd that a merchant, of all people, should double up as an army commander, a martial role, they probably assumed was only the preserve of the Kshatriyas. Even stranger for them was that the Golkonda Sultan, a Muslim himself, with many Muslim warriors at his command, had Hindus as his Generals. The Golconda General whom the Company was referring to was Lingam Nayak.
To the English, coming from an almost monotheistic society, with not just religion, even denominations such as Protestants and Catholics marking clear boundaries of ethnicity, India’s bewildering diversity was a riddle, they couldn’t comprehend easily. Certainly, not in the initial few decades. And their ignorance and confusion reflected in their observations of people and events around them, which found their way to the Company records.
If only the Company had paid attention to its early days under the Vijayanagara ruler Sri Ranga III, they wouldn’t have been so surprised, as one of the local Governors they dealt in his reign was Ballabala Cawne. He was ‘though a Moslem, ruled under the Rajah’ writes Henry Davison Love in his ‘Vestiges of Old Madras.’
Driven out of power by the combined forces of Golkonda and Bijapur, Sri Ranga III, was trying to make a comeback, perhaps with the covert support of Aurangazeb, who as a young prince was also the Mughal Viceroy at the Deccani Sultan’s courts. It was under such circumstances, with the Mir Jumla of Golkonda (who held these parts under Golkonda) switching over to the Mughal side, that the Vijayanagar forces under the Telugu Merchant Koneri Chetti, assembled for a battle in the vicinity of Madras. The battle of course never took place, as Koneri Chetti ‘rendered himself up to the Moores as a Prisoner, but was received in State by the Commanders with more than accustomed honour in such cases.’ While clearly surprised by the turn of events the English did figure out that the Golkonda General Tupaki Krishnappa was a relative of Koneri Chetti.
It was not the only instance of the Hindu-Muslim confusion that the English encountered. When one of their chief native merchants Cassa Verona died, there were rival claimants to the body. The Hindus wanted to burn the body and the Muslims claiming him as one of their own wanted to bury it. Cassa Verona who also went by the name ‘Kasi Viranna’ also had a Muslim alias as ‘Hasan Khan.’ The first mosque in Madras was supposed to have been built by him. He played a vital role in protecting the company’s interests, against a very demanding Golkonda. Out of gratitude for the service rendered by him, the Company even made a gold medal and a chain to honour him, but unfortunately Cassa Verona passed away before it could be presented. Upon his death, when the controversy over his religious affinity was threatening to become a Law and Order issue, the Company pored over his records and sorted out the confusion.
While the English were quick to sort out the religion of their trusted Native Merchant, they deliberately continued with the confusion when it came to interpreting the native states or their armies. When H D Love, made a chronological summary of the events in the ‘Vestiges of Madras,’ he persisted with the wrong perceptions of the early colonial days.
For the year 1656, thus goes the narrative: “Hindus Revolt. Fight at Madras between Hindus under Koneri Chetti and Moslems under Lingam Nayak.” The Vijayanagar and Golkonda fight had been turned by the East India Company into a Hindu versus Muslim, not withstanding many Golkonda Generals and troops being Hindus like Lingam Nayak or Tupaki Krishnappa, and similarly Muslims under the employment of Vijayanagar. The English were not unaware of these nuances. The Company does acknowledge the fact that, irrespective of the ruler, the native armies were known for religious plurality as H D Love records that ‘during the siege of San Thome, in 1673, Telugu officers held high command in the King of Golconda’s army.’
It has to be noted that, though a monumental work, that gives us valuable insight into the colonial times, the writing of the book ‘Vestiges of Madras’ commenced a little after the partition of Bengal, along communal lines. Compartmentalising our history as distinctly ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’ when it was clearly not the case, was to ‘divide and rule.’ Sadly the Indian sub-continent still continues to pay the price for the initial Colonial confusion that was deliberately turned into a state policy.