Watch | Naval officers released by Qatar | What are the diplomatic lessons?

In this episode of Worldview, we discuss what are the diplomatic lessons and takeaways from the 18-month ordeal which ended with the release of the eight former Indian naval personnel from Qatar 

Updated - February 16, 2024 08:09 pm IST

Published - February 16, 2024 07:49 pm IST

This week brought good news- 7 of 8 released Indians, former naval personnel returned to their families, as the Amir of Qatar decided to free the men. The outcome, that followed Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s personal intervention in December with his counterpart Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, was a big relief for the families and a big success for Indian diplomacy, and PM Modi, who was visiting the UAE this week made a previously unannounced visit to Qatar, to express his gratitude:

 “Prime Minister thanked His Highness, the Amir, for his support for the welfare of the Indian community and, in this regard, expressed his deep appreciation to His Highness, the Amir, for the release of eight Indian nationals of Al-Dahra company. We are extremely gratified to see them back in India.” Vinay Kwatra, Foreign Secretary

 The chronology of the case:

  • August 30, 2022: The 8 Indian nationals, including 7 former Naval Commanders and Captains and one former Naval sailor were arrested by Qatari authorities, all worked for Dahra Global Technologies
  • March 2023: Trial begins in the case  
  • May 2023: Dahra Global company shuts down  
  • October 26: Court hands down guilty verdict in the case of espionage, pronounces death sentence 
  •  December 1: PM Modi meets Qatari Amir in Dubai
  • December 28: Court of Appeal commutes death sentences to prison terms
  • February 7: India and Qatar sign a 20-year $78 billion LNG deal that will start in 2028 for gas supplies- the announcement seemed to herald a deal on the Indian prisoners was imminent
  • February 11: 7 men including Captain Gill, Commander Nagpal, Captain Vashisht, Captain Verma, Commander Pakala, Commander Gupta, and Sailor Ragesh returned to India

Commander Purnendu Tiwari, who was the Managing Director at Dahra Global Technologies has been released but remains in Doha- while reports suggested it was due to his health , his sister Dr. Meetu Bhargava has said he is still under a travel ban.

Earlier I spoke to one of those that returned to his family this week- Retd Naval Commander Amit Nagpal.

How did you hear about your release- give us a sense of the moment you knew you would be free?

I came to know when I was going to be free only when I walked out of that facility (Prison in Doha). And I saw [Indian Ambassador Vipul] standing in front of me. I asked him, “Are we out, are we going home?”. He said, “Yes, you’re going home and that’s the moment I realised…” Before that we had no clue at all about what’s going to happen. The suddenness with which we went in…with the same suddenness we came out. Even my wife who had been in Qatar throughout this ordeal had no clue this was going to happen. So it was a very, very pleasant surprise.

Were you in touch with your family throughout?

Well I remember the first time I spoke to my wife Munga- I was put on speaker, and she just said, “Amit I’m not leaving [Doha] without you.” That gave me the strength I needed. This kind of situation is not a punishment for an individual as much as it is for the family. And for an individual, if the family is okay, anybody can go through this kind of ordeal.

Why did you originally decide to move to Qatar?

Well there was this opportunity to train the Qatari navy. I’ve been a career naval officer since 1990, I joined NDA in 1987. So this is my core competence, and they gave me an opportunity to train another country, which I was happy to do. India has been training in this region for a long time, we were the first to go in there, after which there was a gap.

So it was great to get connected to a company which was training in the middle east and we did immensely well, we made a lot of inroads. Unfortunately, it had to end this way.

Tell us about the arrest…

 The minute I was arrested, I knew things were very serious, but I always believed that as I had done nothing wrong, if not today, certainly tomorrow I would be out of this mess. And I had full faith that the authorities would understand that we had done nothing wrong at all. So I didn’t I didn’t really think about the charges because I knew I was innocent

Even so, many innocents don’t get released- how were you helped by the Indian Embassy in Qatar during the trial?

We saw two ambassadors, while we were [in prison] and we also received consular access in the last five-six months. The Ambassador gave us a lot of confidence, and most importantly they opened their doors for the families and said come and speak to us anytime, chat on the phone, send messages. I know the government would have said please help them but what an individual does is important. In particular Ambassador Vipul, and before him Ambassador Mittal (Previous ambassador to Qatar) and their team’s attitude was amazing.  

 And then in October 2023, the court pronounced the death sentence…

Those were the most difficult days. I had by then made a routine for myself, but I could not even follow my routine. We didn’t actually know about the sentence in court- I heard it on the news and then my wife actually told me. I couldn’t believe it, because the sentence was not even proportionate to whatever they thought we did. When I spoke next to my wife, she said that the government is now going to take the charges more seriously. They were going to meet External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, and that gave me a lot of confidence.

It was after that sentence that we saw the the intervention at the highest level by Prime Minister Modi on December 1. Do you wish it had come earlier and who do you credit with your freedom?

We I can’t go into whatever has happened, but I guess so, if [the intervention] could have happened now, it could have happened earlier as well.

Many reports suggested geopolitical factors were behind your arrest- some connected it to India’s position on the Israel-Hamas conflict, others pointed to a Pakistani connection. How did these reports affect you?

Why were we arrested and why did we go through this- I have no clue why it happened. I hope in the future sometime I do come to know why did we actually go through this [ordeal]. Were we really to blame, because we did nothing wrong. All these media reports. about Israel -these are all utter nonsense. We had done nothing at all, we had not spoken to anybody at all. We are not enemies of Qatar. These spying cases only take place between enemies. It’s just unimaginable what happened to us. And as we were sitting inside [prison] and watching these reports on television, our mind would just wonder whether all these events would affect our case. But we had no clue what was happening.

This was a particularly difficult case for the MEA for a number of reasons:

  1. The charges against the Indians were the most serious- espionage, reportedly for Israel – few countries would free those convicted of these charges, especially after the death sentence was pronounced
  2. The Qatari legal system is more opaque than most, and it was difficult to get clear details of the charges, evidence and process ahead
  3. The fact that all 8 were former servicemen- added to the public concerns and pressure in India for their safe return- and criticism of Qatar in India only made the diplomats job more difficult
  4. Geopolitical factors: Qatar and Israel have faced off over the current conflict, Qatar is home to much of the Hamas leadership, and the accusation that the men were spying for Israel was particularly worrying for the government and their families.
  5. India’s balancing act on the Israel Gaza conflict- New Delhi’s vote at the UN in October that abstained from criticism of Israel, its decision not to ban Hamas, negotiating the IMEC with Saudi Arabia and UAE, the INSTC with Iran, any of its actions could have been seen to tip the balance against the naval personnel.
  6. In addition, the fallout of any decline in Qatar ties would have been felt by 800,000 Indians who live and work there

WV Take: Given the high stakes, the government’s skillful diplomatic handling of the Qatar case shows how even the toughest negotiations can be done- 1) avoiding public grandstanding as the government chose with Pakistan over the Jadhav case or Canada over the Nijjar case, 2) pursuing the case legally, showing respect for the Qatari legal system, and 3)having the Prime Minister intervene at the highest levels in a country where power rests with the Amirs, are all parts of the strategy that worked, and can be learnt from.

WV Reading Recommendations:

  1. West Asia At War: Repression, Resistance and Great Power Games by Talmiz Ahmed
  2. India and the Gulf: Theoretical Perspectives and Policy Shifts by Harsh V. Pant and Hasan Alhasan
  3. India and the Gulf Region: Geopolitics, Security,Energy, Diaspora and Maritime Relations by AK Pasha
  4. A Life in the Shadows: A Memoir by A.S. Dulat
  5. In the Shadows: True Stories of High-Stakes Negotiations to Free Americans Captured Abroad by Mickey Bergman and Ellis Henican

Script and Presentation: Suhasini Haidar

Production: Gayatri Menon and Shibu Narayan

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