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”).

Brief history

Punjab’s first urban settlement, dating back to 3000 BC and now known as the Harappan civilization, was invaded by the Aryans around 1700 BC. Among the Sanskrit scriptures set down in the ensuing Vedic age was the Mahabharata, whose epic battles drew on real-life encounters between the ancient kings of Punjab at Karnal, 118km north of Delhi. Conquered by the Mauryans in the third century BC, it saw plenty more action as various invading Mughal armies passed through on their way from the Khyber Pass to Delhi – including Babur, who routed Ibrahim Lodi at Panipat in 1526.

Meanwhile, further north, Sikhism was beginning to establish itself 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. Suppression actually strengthened the Sikh faith in the long run, inspiring the militaristic and confrontational tenth guru Gobind Singh to introduce the Five Ks, part of a rigorous new orthodoxy called the Khalsa, or “Community of the Pure”.

Having survived repeated seventeenth-century Afghan invasions, the Sikh nation emerged to fill the power vacuum left by the collapse of the Mughals. Only in the 1840s, after two bloody wars with the British, was the Khalsa army finally defeated. Thereafter, the Sikhs played a vital role in the Raj, helping to quash the Mutiny of 1857. The relationship only soured after the Jallianwalla Bagh massacre of 1919, which also ensured that the Punjab’s puppet leaders (who hailed the general responsible as a hero) were discredited, leaving the way open for the rise of radicalism.

After Independence and Partition, things calmed down enough to allow the new state to grow wealthy on its prodigious agricultural output. As it did, militant Sikhs began to press for the creation of the separate Punjabi-speaking state they called Khalistan. A compromise of sorts was reached in 1966, when the Hindu district of Haryana and the Sikh-majority Punjab were nominally divided. However, the move did not silence the separatists, and in 1977 Indira Gandhi’s Congress was trounced in state elections by a coalition that included the Sikh religious party, the Akali Dal.

A more sinister element entered the volatile equation with the emergence of an ultra-radical separatist movement led by Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. Covertly supported by the national government (who saw the group as a way to defeat the Akali Dal), Bhindranwale and his band waged a ruthless campaign of sectarian terror in the Punjab which came to a head in 1984, when they occupied Amritsar’s Golden Temple; Operation Blue Star, Indira Gandhi’s brutal response, plunged the Punjab into another ugly bout of communal violence. Four years later, history repeated itself when a less threatening occupation of the temple was crushed by Operation Black Thunder. Since then, the Punjab police have gone on to make considerable advances against the terrorists – helped, for the first time, by Punjabi peasant farmers, the Jats, who had grown tired of the inexorable slaughter. 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 this was the militants’ last gasp. Public support had ebbed, and the police, using strong-arm tactics, were able to wipe out the paramilitary groups that had burgeoned during the 1980s. 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.

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