The prosperous states of Haryana and Punjab occupy the fertile river plain northwest of Delhi. Crossed by the five major tributaries of the Indus River, the former British-administered region of Punjab (“Five Rivers”) was split down the middle at Independence. Indian Muslims fled west into Pakistan, Sikhs and Hindus east, in an exodus accompanied by horrific massacres. In 1966, Indira Gandhi, in response to Sikh pressure, made the Punjab Hills into Himachal Pradesh. The plains, meanwhile, were divided into the predominantly Sikh Punjab and the 96-percent Hindu Haryana, both governed from the specially built capital of Chandigarh.
There is little of tourist interest in the two states other than the Golden Temple in Amritsar and the wacky Rock Garden of Chandigarh, but the region, India’s breadbasket, is very important to the nation’s economy. Its farmers produce nearly a quarter of India’s wheat and one third of its milk and dairy foods, while Ludhiana churns out ninety percent of the country’s woollen goods. Helped by remittance cheques from millions of expatriates in the UK, US and Canada, the states’ per capita income is almost double the national average.
Crossing Haryana and Punjab, you’re bound to travel at some stage along part of the longest, oldest and most famous highway in India – the NH-1, alias the Grand Trunk Road, stretching 2000km from Peshawar, near the rugged Afghan–Pakistan frontier, to Kolkata on the River Hooghly. The first recorded mention of this trade corridor dates from the fourth century BC, when it was known as the Uttar Path (the “North Way”).
Punjab’s first urban settlement was the Harappan civilization of around 3000 BC. The epic battles in the Mahabharata drew on real-life encounters between the ancient kings of Punjab at Karnal. Conquered by the Mauryans in the third century BC, the Punjab saw further action as various invaders passed through on their way from the Khyber Pass to Delhi – including the Mughal emperor Babur, who routed Ibrahim Lodi at Panipat in 1526.
Sikhism began in the region under the tutelage of Guru Nanak (1469–1539). Based on the notion of a single formless God, the guru’s vision of a casteless egalitarian society found favour with both Hindus and Muslims, in spite of Mughal emperor Aurangzeb’s attempts to stamp it out. Indeed, one result of his intolerance was that the Sikhs – eager to avoid a Mughal resurrection – willingly helped the British to quash the great uprising in 1857. Their relationship with the British only soured after the Jallianwalla Bagh massacre of 1919.
Partition in 1947 brought sectarian hatred to the surface, with an exodus of Muslims from the Indian half of the Punjab, and of Hindus and Sikhs from the Pakistani half, amid great slaughter. After Independence, the Indian part grew wealthy on its agricultural output and militant Sikhs began to press for the creation of an independent state called Khalistan. In 1966, the mainly Hindu area of Haryana was hived off, but that failed to silence the separatists, whose party, the Akali Dal, trounced Congress in state elections.
With covert support from the national government (who saw the group as a way to defeat the Akali Dal), a more radical separatist movement led by Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale began a campaign of sectarian terror, coming to a head in 1984 with the occupation of Amritsar’s Golden Temple. Indira Gandhi’s brutal response, Operation Blue Star, plunged the Punjab into another ugly bout of communal violence. Four years later, a less threatening occupation of the temple was crushed by Operation Black Thunder. Most Akali Dal factions boycotted the 1992 elections, which saw Congress returned on a 22 percent turnout. Chief minister Beant Singh was killed by a car bomb in 1995, but that was the militants’ last gasp. Public support had ebbed and subsequent state elections have seen a return to normality. An Akali Dal/BJP coalition – thrown out by Congress in 2002 – regained power in 2007, and held it in 2012, with voter turnout back to normal and no paramilitary violence.