A Qatari Court

The death sentence awarded to eight former Indian Navy officers, after more than a year of detention, by a Qatar court has shocked India. An early resolution of this case would now prove to be a great diplomatic challenge for the mandarins in Raisina Hills. In the backdrop of the current geopolitical environment in the Middle East, the challenge would be felt even sharper as Qatar's ruling elite will not be able to focus attention on this issue. If the eight Indians are executed, it would not only cast a shadow on India’s fast evolving security relationship with Qatar but also question the relevance of indulging in similar defence cooperation relationships with the rest of the Arab world.

With another Indian ex-naval commander Kulbhushan Jadhav already in Pakistani jail, facing death sentence on similar charges, the Qatar case would be portrayed as another example of Indians involved in espionage activities. The Qatar episode could become a big blot for India.

The sentencing of eight Indians would embarrass and dampen the spirit of around 8 lakh Indian workers living in Qatar, and also have an impact on over 8 million people of Indian origin living in the Arab world. Since Indians are known for their hard work and sincerity, the episode will make a dent in their image and the Arab governments may hesitate to employ high-end Indian professionals in sensitive security-related jobs in future. Clearly, this case threatens to have widespread ramifications.

It is to be seen how India uses its clout in the region to impress upon the Qatar rulers to free the eight Indians. At least the Qatari authorities can give a green signal to the Indian government for the implementation of the relevant agreement signed in October 2015. Qatar and India had entered into this agreement during the visit of the Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani for transfer or repatriation of sentenced prisoners to serve the rest of the detention period at home. This agreement can be invoked to pardon the Indian prisoners and bring them back home.

In countries like Qatar, the powers to free convicts lodged in jails and commute death sentences rest with the king. Every year, on the occasion of festivals like Eid, the king grants remission to sentenced citizens. The king can overturn this decision of the court too, but it will be his prerogative and depend on how much relevance he attaches to Qatar’s relations with India. Indian interlocutors have in recent months been quietly working with the Qatari officials concerned in this regard.

What Is The Former Indian Navy Officers’ Case?

The Indian naval experts were engaged by a Qatari firm Al Dahra, which was working on a project for the Qatari Emiri Navy. The Qatari authorities never made public the charges against the eight Indians, but according to diplomatic sources, they were accused of spying for Israel as the Qatari navy was executing a contract to oversee the induction of Italian small stealth submarine U2I2. The Qatari company implementing this contract has since been dissolved.

After their arrest last year, the eight Indians had been languishing in a Doha jail. There were reports that Pakistani intelligence officials were playing a role in provoking the Qatari authorities by alleging misconduct on part of these Indians.

Diplomatic sources believe that the way the Pakistani media was taking interest in the case, it seemed the Pakistani intelligence was involved. It was suspected that Pakistan wanted to drive a wedge between India and its Arabian friends as they were getting jealous of Arabian countries’ growing reliance on Indians for technical support and assistance. The Pakistanis were losing the opportunities to get high-end jobs in Arab countries and the Indians were able to get away with all plum jobs.

The Pakistani media had been taking a lot of interest in the case, and appeared to be planted with misleading and wrong information. According to reports in Pakistan media, the Indians allegedly handed over confidential information relating to the Qatari acquisition programme to the Israelis. Qatar is building a big naval base for which it signed an MoU with Italian firm Fincantieri SpA for transfer of U2I2 submarines and maintenance and other technical assistance for upkeep of the base.

Also, India and Qatar had over the years developed strong security ties, which were not liked by Pakistan. Of late, India has invested a lot in the Gulf to deepen ties with the energy-rich region. Because of these efforts, not only Qatar, but almost all other major Arab kingdoms were getting closer to India. Indian armed forces have started war games with their Arabian counterparts, which is indicative of closer bilateral relationships.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also developed personal bonds with the Arabian rulers, from Saudi Arabia to Oman to the United Arab Emirates to Qatar.

The growing security ties with the region looked so natural that Qatar started employing Indian security experts on sensitive jobs. In fact, one of the sentenced retired officers, Commander Purnendu Tiwari (Retd), was conferred the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman Award in 2019, by President Ram Nath Kovind. The other convicted Indians are Captain Navtej Singh Gill, Captain Birendra Kumar Verma, Commander Sugunakar Pakala, Commander Sanjeev Gupta, Commander Amit Nagpal, Sailor Ragesh Gopakumar, and Captain Saurav Vashisht.

India’s Efforts To Get The Naval Sailors Freed

India had expected that on the strength of the growing Qatar-India bilateral relations and deepening defence exchanges, they would be able to convince the country that allegations against the 8 Indians were baseless. India has avoided direct interference in the Qatari legal process or put pressure on the Qatari authorities. External Affairs minister Dr S Jaishankar has assured that the detained retired naval personnel are a priority for India, and that the Indian embassy in Doha is pursuing the matter.

Former Indian Ambassador to Doha Deepak Mittal had met the detainees thrice, and expressed hope that they would be able to come back to India soon. It can be assumed that Indian diplomats are using back-channel talks to deal with the issue.

With economic constraints coming in the way, the Indian government could not obviously exercise enough diplomatic leverage over Qatar. There are nearly 8 lakh Indians in Qatar, who form one fourth of the country's population, and New Delhi has to protect their interests.

In 2022, the governments of India and Qatar commemorated the Golden Jubilee of their diplomatic relations, and have developed mutual trust to an extent that they are expanding this relationship in the defence arena. In 2016, during PM Modi’s visit to Qatar, the Emir of Qatar consented to provide further impetus to these ties, through joint exercises, and enhanced training of air, naval and land forces. Qatar has also taken interest in India’s Make in India programme in the defence sector, and wants joint production of defence equipment. It is hoped that Qatar would give importance and priority to developing stronger bilateral and security cooperation relations with India.