Qatar’s death row to 8 ex-navy men: Modi govt’s most difficult diplomacy test

While reports suggest the men have been charged with espionage, the Indian government has claimed it does not know yet.

WrittenBy:Nirupama Subramanian
Pictures of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Qatar Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.

Eight naval veterans are on death row in Qatar. The charges against them have not been made public, but media speculation attributed to unnamed sources in the government is that they have been convicted of espionage for a “third country”. Their families, the large community of Indian military veterans, and the nation are looking to the government to bring them back alive and well. The Indian diaspora in Qatar and elsewhere in the region is watching with concern. West Asia is on the brink of a region-wide conflagration, and India is in election season.

Is this the most difficult diplomatic challenge that the Modi government has faced in the last nine years? The apparent helplessness of the government in the matter since August last year, after the eight men — three captains, four commanders and a sailor — were picked up in a midnight swoop, and its admission of “shock” at the verdict of death penalty to all eight men, indicate no less.

Size is misleading

Qatar is a small country, but wealthy. It has massive reserves of natural gas, and the influence of Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani extends across the country’s borders to the geopolitics of the region and beyond. In the current Israeli war on Gaza, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is dependent on Qatar to bring back the 200 or so hostages that Hamas is holding. Doha is home to Hamas’ top leadership. It backs the Muslim Brotherhood. It has good relations with Iran. It was among the first Gulf countries to openly trade with Israel. It maintains ties with both Shi’ite and Sunni militants.

For these reasons, its relations with Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and other GCC members have been strained, of the on-again, off-again kind. Along with Egypt, these countries imposed a blockade on Qatar from 2017 to 2021. Al Jazeera, the news channel watched by millions across the globe, is based in Doha, is another irritant in their ties. But Qatar is also a US ally, and hosts the biggest American base in the region, an invaluable leverage in West Asia. 

The emirate was the go-between in talks between the US administration under President Donald Trump and the Taliban, which eventually led to the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in 2021. Despite the documented human rights issues in Qatar, the country hosted the 2022 football World Cup and was widely-hailed by the global football association FIFA for pulling off the “best ever” final in the tournament’s history.

Qatar-India ties

India’s ties with Qatar have involved trade and people-to-people exchanges for decades, but the relationship saw an upswing from 2008, when the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh became the first Indian leader to make an official visit to the country. In 2016, Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited. Sheikh Tamim visited India in 2015, and his father, the previous Emir, made three visits. 

India gets 42 percent of its total gas imports from Qatar. At about 800,000, the Indian diaspora constitutes slightly over a fifth of Qatar’s 2.1 million population. India’s bilateral trade with Qatar is valued at about $15 billion, of which imports are worth $13 billion, almost all of it LNG and LPG.

The MEA’s brief on India-Qatar relations describes “defence co-operation” as a “pillar” of bilateral ties. The India-Qatar Defence Cooperation Agreement, which was signed during Prime Minister Singh’s November 2008 visit, was extended for another five years in 2018. It comes to an end this month.

Al Dahra Global Technologies and Consultancy Services, for which the eight men were working, was seen as an important part of this relationship, going by the praise that India showered on its services for enhancing the bilateral relationship. One of the men on death row, commander Purnendu Tiwari (retired), was awarded the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman in 2019. Two Indian envoys, P Kumaran and Deepak Mittal, were lavish in their praise of the company in its visitors’ book, quoted on the company’s website, which was scrubbed the day after the first news report on the custody of the men. The company itself no longer exists.

Silence of the wolf warrior

Delhi’s silence since the time of the arrest of the eight men has to be seen against this background. In fact, not counting the border clashes with China, it is hard to recollect a time when India has been so silent on an issue that relates to foreign policy and diplomacy in the recent past, that too one with a direct impact on Indian lives. Also, there is no other precedent of so many Indians caught together in a friendly foreign country for what is speculated to be a case of a security breach. Kulbhushan Jadhav’s case involved a single person and a hostile country.

Pakistan paraded Jadhav as a trophy, as evidence for its allegation that India was carrying out terrorist attacks on its soil. Led by Sushma Swaraj who helmed the ministry of external affairs then, the government went public with the battle to bring him back. The two countries engaged in bitter verbal duels that went down well with the media and public on both sides. India sought the International Court of Justice’s intervention to ensure that he would not be executed as per the verdict of a Pakistani military court. But Jadhav, whose mother and wife were allowed by Pakistan to meet him in a manner that was contested by India, has largely faded from Indian memory.

In 2014, the ISIS in Iraq captured 39 Indian workers. While enough indicators pointed to their execution within days, the Modi government, then in its early days, was apparently reluctant to break this horrific news to the families and the nation. In Punjab, where all the men belonged, the BJP was then in the ruling coalition with the Shiromani Akali Dal. External affairs minister, Swaraj kept alive the hopes of the families, engaging with them publicly and assuring them at every turn that the men were alive and would be brought back – until the Iraqi government discovered their skeletons in a desert.

In contrast, the first-time external affairs minister S Jaishankar met with the families of the eight Navy veterans in Qatar after the death sentence was announced.

Delhi has been silent in other ways too. At the end of October 2022, Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke to the Emir, accepting his Diwali greetings, and conveying India’s good wishes for a successful FIFA World Cup tournament. But the official readout was silent on whether the issue of the eight men came up in that conversation.

The next month, vice-president Jagdeep Dhankar was the guest at the inaugural of the World Cup. At the time, it was reported that India took up with the Qatar government a purported invitation to Zakir Naik, the controversial Islamist preacher and a wanted fugitive in India, and even said that if it was not cancelled, Dhankar would not attend. 

The ministry of external affairs announced that Delhi had taken up the matter with authorities in Doha and had been assured that no such invitation had been issued to Naik. 

This was just weeks after reports on the arrest of the eight veterans surfaced in the public domain. But unlike the Naik issue, this was not made a condition for Dhankar’s attendance, nor apparently was he able to raise the matter during his visit — because there was “no structured meeting” between him and the Emir.

The families were mostly silent too, preferring not to engage with the media openly, fearful that the government would hold it against them. Only a few plaintive tweets appealing to the Prime Minister, the EAM and the National Security Adviser, gave away their mounting anxiety.

Reputation costs

There is silence about the charges, with the government claiming that it does not know yet, and that it has not seen the verdict either. If that is true, it speaks poorly of the government’s diplomatic reach and access in a friendly country. But it is also a fact that the government engaged lawyers to defend the men, and that embassy officials met the men in detention and spoke to them, so it is hard to believe it remains in the dark about the case.

In Doha, India withdrew its Naval advisor to Qatar months after the arrest, quietly. The position has not been filled yet. The Navy has remained silent about a crisis that involves eight of its former personnel.

If indeed this is an espionage case, India’s reticence may be due to the reputation costs. Delhi has defence and security ties with many small countries in the Indian Ocean region. 

In Mauritius, the National Security Adviser of the country is a high-ranking Indian security official. India is building a naval base on one of its islands. In the Seychelles, India has been trying to build a base for years. In Maldives, India works in close co-operation with the Maldivian Defence forces, which includes a Coast Guard and the police, a relationship that is in jeopardy after the last election. But the Qatar controversy could put defence and former-defence personnel under a lens wherever they are employed abroad.

Weight of expectations

The government’s engagement with the Indian diaspora, the lengths to which it went to bring back stranded students in Ukraine when Russia invaded the country, the declaration by Jaishankar that “no Indian will be left behind”, have all created high hopes that on this crucial issue, the government can deliver.

Behind the scenes, the families have begun exerting silent pressure through veterans and veteran associations, in the form of articles in the media and signature campaigns. 

There is concern about how two other matters, which bookended this particular issue of the ex-navy men, will affect, or may have already affected, India’s diplomatic efforts. 

One was the controversy caused in June 2022 by Nupur Sharma, with Qatar being the first in the Islamic world to denounce her offensive remarks about Prophet Mohammed, and demand an apology. Second, days before the death sentence was announced, came the Hamas attack on Israel, and Prime Minister Modi’s solidarity with Israel, which was fully divergent from Qatar’s blame of Israeli actions as a trigger for the attack.

The BJP must be worried too about how the fate of the eight men will play out in the upcoming state assembly elections. However, if the Emir were to pardon the eight men – one of the options that Delhi is said to be exploring for their release – sometime during Eid, which falls in the month of April next year, that may deliver to the BJP a winning card.

In whichever way it unfolds, the diplomatic challenge of bringing the men back home safe presents even more difficulties than India’s tightrope walk on the Israel war against Palestine, or Russia’s war in Ukraine. On this issue, there is no abstain button that India can press. 

Also see
article imageUnlike Russia-Ukraine, India’s ‘neutrality’ on Gaza truce has no good explanation
article imageWhy India’s MEA still hasn’t issued an official statement on Israel-Palestine


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