New Delhi: The eight Indian nationals, all navy veterans, will be entering their four months of illegal detention at the hands of the Qatar intelligence agencies as December arrives. There are no indications of them being released any time soon with any such hopes being dashed on Thursday evening. Last week, Ministry of External Affair (MEA) officials, through source-based briefing, had told the Indian media earlier that Vice President Jagdeep Dhankhar, who was to travel to Doha on a two-day visit for taking part in the inauguration event of the FIFA World Cup, would be taking up the issue of the Indian nationals with the Qatar government.

This had raised the hopes of the release of the eight Indians. However, on Thursday, while addressing the weekly media briefing, MEA spokesperson Arindam Bagchi did a virtual volte-face and categorically stated that Dhankhar had not raised the issue of the eight Indians with the Qatari government.

Interestingly, Bagchi, in the same briefing, confirmed that Dhankhar had taken up the issue of the presence of fugitive Zakir Naik in the same event with the Qatar government to which they stated that Naik was not in Qatar on the invitation of the government.

On the same night, the family members of the detainees were invited to a video call with members of the Indian Embassy in Qatar. During this interaction, the embassy officials were not able to provide anything concrete as to why the Qatar intelligence agency had arrested the Indians and when they would be released.

Earlier last week, family members of a couple of detainees had met their relatives who are in prison in Doha during which the detainees were only concerned about when they will be released and what is the government of India doing to bring them back. While the weight of these detainees had reduced by 8-10 kg, according to official sources, there was no indication of the eight being subjected to physical assault.

They were though being meted out with what can be called as induced “psychological’ stress. The Qatari officials were coming to the detainees’ cell once a week, questioning them on irrelevant topics for a few minutes and then leaving.

The MEA has so far limited itself to stating that it is “taking up this matter” with the Qatari government which has “allowed” India a “couple” of consular access to these detainees, the first of which was on 4 October, more than one month after they were illegally arrested.

The MEA has, in an act of omission which has led to conspiracy theories getting credence, not shared any information, on or off the record, on why the Indian nationals have been kept in solitary confinement for so long, a “punishment” that is reserved for extremely serious offences.

The MEA, when asked, asked the Indian media to “refer’ to the government of Qatar for the reasons for their arrest. Anti-India organizations active in the region, using this information vacuum, have been successful in pushing the theory that the Indian nationals have been arrested for indulging in “espionage activities”.

The Qatar Ministry of Interior, through the State Security Bureau (SSB) [the intelligence agency of Qatar, which has a reputation of acting over enthusiastically most of the time and is known for giving scant regards to personal liberty], had arrested these eight Indians and an Omani national on 30 August without any reason being assigned for the action.

Later, it emerged that all of them have been kept in solitary confinement. All these nine are associated with a private company, Dahra Global Technologies, which among other activities, has been training the personnel of Qatar navy for five years now. The CEO of the said group, Khamis Al Ajmi, a retired Squadron Leader of the Royal Oman Air Force, was released on 18 November. However, the Indian nationals continue to be in custody.

After sleuths of the SSB had arrested these Indian nationals, their residence was thoroughly searched. The MSS took away hard disks and laptops that they found in the houses. The Sunday Guardian reached out to Ajmi, but like the Qatari Ministry of Interior, he too has maintained a studied silence on the entire matter and has refused to show light on why he and the Indians were taken into custody. A few other Doha-based Indian employees of Dahra, whom The Sunday Guardian reached out to, also refrained from sharing any details which shows the “hold” and “terror’ of the SSB on Indian nationals working in Qatar.

The Indian population makes up for almost 25% of the total population of this tiny gulf country, which is among the smallest countries by size (165th rank overall) with a population of less than 30 lakh (less than Indore, Madhya Pradesh) and comes at 54th position as far as global GDP ranking is concerned. However, as the recent incidents show, Qatar has recently successfully managed to punch above its weight.

The family members of the eight Indians have been meeting top political leaders of the party in power, seeking their intervention for the release of these veterans. However, except assurances, they have not received anything concrete till now. In a related interesting development, on Friday, the Indian Ambassador to Qatar, Deepak Mittal, was removed and posted to the Prime Minister’s Office as an Officer on Special Duty. The family members of the Indians, who are in illegal detention, had earlier spoken about the “lukewarm” response of Mittal as far as taking interest in their problems was concerned. Whether his removal from Doha was related to his alleged inefficiency, as the family members have claimed—so far as handling this present issue was concerned—could not be confirmed till the time this story went to press. The family members believe that the Indian embassy, under Mittal, should have intervened in the matter more swiftly but it took the MEA more than two months to issue a statement on this and that too happened only after the family members and the media took it up with people in Delhi.

Among those in illegal confinement are Commander (Retired) Purnendu Tiwari who served in the Indian Navy from 1982 to 2002 and (all retired from Indian navy), Commander Navtej Singh Gill, Commander Birendra Kumar Verma, Commander Sugunakar Pakala, Commander Sanjay Gupta, Commander Amit Nagpal, Captain Saurabh Vasisht and Ragesh Gopakumar.