A Tale of Two Cities: Amritsar’s Rise, Jalandhar’s Fall

In the late 90s and early parts of this century, Jalandhar along with Ludhiana was ‘THE CITY’ of Punjab, India. The glitzy city of upstart NRIs, ambitious politicians, upbeat Bhangra rappers, haughty media barons, and affluent exporters —abuzz with activity and purpose.

Dollar-rich NRIs competed to erect their ‘swanky houses in and around the city’. Boutiques, pizza outlets and hotels dotted its neon-lit roads. Hordes of ‘cocky, sweet-tongued, and street smart’ city-based travel agents fuelled and fulfilled the phoren (foreign) dreams of Punjabis.

A prime minister from Jalandhar in Inder Kumar Gujral provided guidance and largesse to the city. Ambitious and crafty politicians like Chaudhary Jagjit and Avtar Henry dominated the city and the state. An assertive and proud Dalit movement was making its presence felt in Doaba, with Jalandhar being the epicentre of its activities.

Desh Bhagat Yaadgar Hall and Nawan Zamana newspaper kept the embers of Ghadari and the Left tradition smouldering .

Jalandhar made hand tools, rubber, sports and leather goods that ruled the global market, swelled the coffers of its exporters, and along with its NRIs poured money into the city. MBD kunjis (guide books) were read all over India, and Lovely ‘sweets’ were savoured all over Punjab and beyond.

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Rising Jalandhar, Decrepit Amritsar

Media giants like Ajit and Jagbani informed, inflamed and influenced Punjab’s public. Punjab Kesari lorded over the Hindi heartland. The state-owned Doordarshan and Akashwani still enjoyed monopoly over eyeballs and eardrums .

The likes of Malkit Singh, Jazzy Bains, Hans Raj Hans made Bhangra pop famous the world over.

Pargat Singh and Harbhajan carried forward the legacy of sporting excellence. Bollywood romance and NRI-sagas like the Shah Rukh Khan-starrer DDLJ set in Jalandhar and Phagwara, and songs like “Chandigarh kare aashki, mundan jattan da jalandhron aake” epitomised the zeitgeist of the times.

The newly-erected Science City, and Lovely university promised greater things ahead.

In stark contrast to Jalandhar just 80 kilometres away was Amritsar, once the heart of Punjab, had fallen into a prolonged slump. Partition, wars with Pakistan in the 60s, and militancy in the 80s, had ensured the steady flight of capital and industry over the years.

Hindu-Sikh tensions marked the narrow galis and kutchas of the old city. Tourism and trade had slumped. Traffic jams clogged the arteries of the city of gurus .

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An Unrecognisable Amritsar

Amritsar was now more well-known for its smugglers and slimy politicians like Maninderjeet Singh Bitta than its succulent street food or exquisite shawls. Chor Bazaar, a haven of smuggled goods rivalled Katra Jaimal Singh and Guru Bazaar in popularity. The once-famed Khalsa college had become a centre of hoodlums. The era of hope, compassion and defiance epitomised by the likes of Bhagat Puran Singh and Satyapal Dang was coming to an end. Amritsar showed all signs of a decayed and dying city.

Today’s Amritsar is unrecognisable from that urban nightmare of the 90s. Powered by tourism and trade, investment and capital is pouring into the city. Gleaming malls like Alpha, Celebration and Trillium are choc-a-block with consumers.

Locals and tourists alike swarm the swanky Ranjit Avenue restaurants and posh hotels like Marriot and Radisson. Newly-planned residential colonies like Alpha city are seen mushrooming around the periphery .

Much of the push for Amritsar’s transformation came through the city-based connections of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who lavished the city with funds. Powerful politicians from Bikram Majithia to Navjot Sidhu compete to represent and bring investments to Amritsar, a far cry from the Bittas and Darbari Lals of the 90s .

Infrastructure projects like elevated road and a bypass have cleansed the once-choked congestion of the city. Airplanes, trains and taxis come loaded with tourists, both desi and NRI. The European-style heritage street with its Maharaja Ranjit Singh and Bhangra statues, eateries, and shops selling phulkaris are a rage among travellers. Even traditional bazaars like Guru Bazaar, Katra Jaimal Singh and Hall Gate are full of bustle and activity with jewellery, dry fruits and wadian papads being sold.

Jalandhar on the Decline

Apart from the historical and traditional tourist hot spots like Golden Temple, Wagah border, Jallianwala Bagh and Ram Tirath, there are the newly-inaugurated War and Partition museums, which give a new cultural edge to the city.

‘Amritsar’ as a brand is at the heights of its popularity. Bollywood movies from ‘Veer Zaara’ to ‘Rab Ne Bana di Jodi’ are set in Amritsar. Amritsari cuisine from ‘Fish Amritsari’ to ‘Amritsari Kulcha’ enjoy pan-Indian popularity.

Jalandhar on the other hand now resembles the Amritsar of the 80s and the 90s. On a visit to the city, one is greeted by empty malls and maddening traffic jams.

The once swaggering sports, leather and hand tool makers are now limping along, bruised by Chinese competition, and stifling domestic policies. Canadian, British and US NRIs, whose money and pursuit of “status” powered Jalandhar’s boom, are now cutting off their umbilical cord with Punjab. The sure hand of the gentle, visionary uncle Gujral is no longer there to guide Jalandhar. His suave son was humbled by the gruff Rana Gurjit in 2004 and sent packing to Delhi.

Jalandhar’s Fortunes Change For the Worse

The likes of Diljit Dosanjh and Gippy Grewal have long replaced Jalandhri icons like Jazzy B and Malkit Singh as Bhangra icons. No towering Jalandhar-based politician remains.

Doordarshan and Akashwani have long been eclipsed by satellite channels and FM stations. Ajit and Jagbani are struggling against the like of Dainik Bhaskar and Dainik Jagran newspapers.

50 years of migration has rendered the city and its hinterland bereft of youth ,energy and initiative. A pall of sadness, emptiness and melancholy hangs over this once-proud capital of Doaba.

It is Jalandhar, not Amritsar which is struggling now.

(Harjeshwar Pal Singh is an Assistant Professor (History) at SGGS College, Chandigarh. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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