Video Producer: Mayank Chawla
Video Editor: Shohini Bose
(Waris Punjab De chief Amritpal Singh's aide Papalpreet Singh has been arrested by the Punjab police on 10 April from Kathu Nangal in Punjab and charged under National Security Act. This is Papalpreet Singh's profile, originally published on 7 April.)
Where is Waris Punjab De chief Amritpal Singh? We don't know. What will happen to him? Only time will tell.
But another important question is - How did he get here?
In our report from October 2022, we gave details about Amritpal Singh's early days of online activism, his sudden rise after returning from Dubai in 2022 and the larger vacuum in which this rise took place. This was the first profile of Amritpal Singh in the media.
However, a missing piece in the entire jigsaw puzzle is Papalpreet Singh - Amritpal Singh's aide who escaped the police along with him.
To understand how Amritpal Singh became the figure that he did, it is important to understand Papalpreet Singh.
So far all that has come in the mainstream media about Papalpreet Singh are labels given by unnamed 'sources' - Amritpal Singh's 'handler', 'self-styled journalist with ISI links' etc.
We are not in a position to confirm or deny these rumours and that is not the purpose of this piece. We will try to piece together Papalpreet Singh's trajectory and how that may explain Amritpal Singh's present stand-off with the State.
Early Days of Activism, Move to Politics and Journalism
Presently in his late 30s, Papalpreet Singh hails from an agricultural family. He studied in a convent school and reportedly completed a PG diploma. Papalpreet Singh became an activist in his early 20s. The year was 2007 when two crucial events took place.
First, Jagtar Singh Hawara and Balwant Singh Rajoana were given death sentences in the case of chief minister Beant Singh's assassination.
Second, the blasphemy committed by Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh by dressing up as Guru Gobind Singh.
In an interview to TV84 in 2016, Papalpreet Singh claims that the contrast between the two events in 2007 made him quit his private job and become a full-time activist.
Papalpreet became the driving force behind the Sikh Youth Front and he was also associated with the Sikh Youth Federation Bhindrawala.
Besides support for Khalistan, a key issue that Papalpreet agitated for was the release of Sikh prisoners who have been in jail since the early 1990s.
Papalpreet Singh came into prominence at the 2015 Sarbat Khalsa, in which he read out jailed militant Narain Singh Chaura's 'chargesheet' against the then Parkash Singh Badal government. At the end of his speech, Papalpreet also said that "Khalistan is the only solution".
The Sarbat Khalsa was organised mainly as an expression of anger at the sacrilege cases earlier that year and the killing of two Sikh youth by the police at a protest against the sacrilege incidents.
The then government charged Papalpreet Singh with sedition for being one of the organisers of the Sarbat Khalsa.
The case was later dropped in 2018 following the recommendations of the Justice Mehtab Singh Gill commission.
In 2016, Papalpreet joined Simranjit Singh Mann's party Shiromani Akali Dal (Amritsar). He campaigned extensively for Mann in Barnala in the 2017 Assembly elections. Mann fared poorly and secured less than four percent votes in the seat.
Later that year Papalpreet resigned from the party.
A journalist who has closely interacted with Papalpreet Singh and tracked his trajectory says that "He is an individual operator who keeps shifting. He not someone who commits himself to a particular organisation".
"He doesn't command any mass following," the journalist added.
A few activists who have worked with Papalpreet Singh say that he doesn't see himself as a "leader" or "face" but rather as someone who works behind the scenes.
This is also evident in Papalpreet's social media profiles, all of which are now banned in India. Only a fraction of videos in his YouTube channel were of him speaking. It was mostly dedicated to interviews with families of slain militants, pro-Khalistan intellectuals and activists.
His Instagram profile for the last one year was almost entirely devoted to Amritpal Singh.
Papalpreet Singh's 'Maximalist' Approach
The pro-Khalistan space in Punjab has different shades within it. There are those like Simranjit Mann and his SAD-Amritsar who are pro-Khalistan but want to achieve it through democratic means. They fight elections within the Indian Constitution. Outfits like Dal Khalsa are also pro-Khalistan and stand for peaceful means of protest.
There are also many activists who want Khalistan but are prefer to immediately focus on incremental change and what they believe are more attainable issues like release of political prisoners.
There is also a strand which is prepared to remain within the Indian Union, provided it gives greater federal autonomy for Punjab, addresses issues like water-sharing and Chandigarh, and gives justice to victims of human rights abuses.
"People like Papalpreet don't want anything short of Khalistan. This is not a practical approach. Sometimes one has to take smaller steps," a pro-Khalistan activist told The Quint.
"Their approach also makes it difficult to forge alliances within India with other groups that are victims of state policies," the activist added.
Even while joining Simranjit Singh Mann's party, Papalpreet Singh did say that he has a different approach from Mann.
Gurbachan Singh Manochahal - Papalpreet Singh's Inspiration
In a 2016 radio interview, Papalpreet Singh says that his main inspiration is Gurbachan Singh Manochahal, founder of the Bhindranwale Tiger Force of Khalistan, a militant group that was powerful in Tarn Taran during the insurgency.
Papalpreet says he heard stories of Manochahal through his relative who knew the militant leader.
Manochahal suffered a bullet injury during the 1978 Sikh-Nirankari clash and he played a key role in giving the call for Khalistan at the 1986 Sarbat Khalsa.
The government of India is said to have tried very hard to capture Manochahal or get him to surrender. According to reports, senior IB official Maloy Krishna Dhar was given the task of negotiating with Manochahal. According to the Committee for the Coordination of Disappearances in Punjab, members of Manochahal's family were allegedly detained and tortured to get him to surrender. Manochahal escaped the police on a number of occasions and is said to have killed 12 police officers.
He was killed in an encounter on 1 March 1993.
There are elements from Manochahal's story that Papalpreet seems to be trying to replicate. His statement that at the 2015 Sarbat Khalsa that 'Khalistan is the only solution' can perhaps be seen as a way of replicating what Manochahal and others did at the 1986 Sarbat Khalsa.
It won't be surprising if Amritpal Singh's call for a Sarbat Khalsa on Vaisakhi might have been Papalpreet Singh's idea.
The Brain Behind Amritpal Singh
A key focus area for Papalpreet Singh has been the early phase of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale - his sudden rise in Punjab's religio-political landscape 1978 onwards.
Some say that Papalpreet has created the optics around Amritpal Singh to resemble the early phase of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale.
"To create an aura around Amritpal Singh, Papalpreet composed his photographs to resemble Bhindranwale's photographs that are known among people. The way Amritpal is photographed with journalists, with children or with female followers is similar to Bhindranwale's photographs with these sections," a senior Sikh journalist told The Quint.
Not just the optics, even the focus on Dharam Prachar and de-addiction is similar to how Bhindranwale travelled across Punjab preaching against evils like consumerism, pornography and addiction in the 1970s.
Now, Amritpal Singh is no Bhindranwale by a long stretch and lacks both the religious training as well as ground support that the latter had. But what Papalpreet seems to have accomplished with his focus on optics and symbolism, is to create some kind of a simulation of what happened in the early phase of Bhindranwale.
This has been aided in no small part by the grievances created by the policies of the state government and to a greater extent the central government.
Now, it is not known whether Amritpal Singh and Papalpreet Singh had indeed plotted an armed rebellion against the State as many media houses have claimed.
But what we can say based on what we have understood of Papalpreet Singh, is that the call for Sarbat Khalsa might have been a ploy to repeat the pro-Khalistan resolution that was passed in 1986 and the call for Khalistan that Papalpreet gave in 2015.
What happens next will depend greatly on what the government, Akal Takht and pro-Khalistan organisations do in the coming weeks. It seems likely that the Akal Takht Jathedar won't accept Amritpal Singh's call for Sarbat Khalsa.
Now, will other pro-Khalistan outfits go ahead and conduct a gathering, like the gatherings that happened without official sanction in 1986 and 2015?
Or will they let it pass, in which case the Amritpal Singh and Papalpreet Singh's gamble would have failed.