Much to lose if the ‘Indian veterans in Qatar’ case festers

The Indian ruling establishment must display unprecedented leadership in saving the lives of the eight former Indian Navy officials being held in Qatar

November 06, 2023 01:15 am | Updated 11:42 am IST

‘India’s relationship with Qatar will head south if this diplomatic row is not settled on mutually acceptable terms’

‘India’s relationship with Qatar will head south if this diplomatic row is not settled on mutually acceptable terms’ | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

India was presented with a formidable diplomatic challenge on October 26 when eight former Indian Navy officials held in Qatar on unknown charges since August 30 last year were sentenced to death by a Qatari ‘Court of First Instance’. Their families who were hoping that back-channel efforts might secure their release now face the most extreme prospect — the death row. The court’s sentence left the Indian establishment “deeply shocked”, as in the Ministry of External Affairs statement. Some prima facie assessments can be made. First, all the eight veterans receiving the maximum punishment seems to be an ‘unexpected outcome’. Second, the opacity of charges and the complete secrecy under which Qatar moved from trial to conviction in under seven months seem to have taken the Indian side by surprise. Hopefully, the passage of time has allowed the Indian authorities to assimilate the full import of the judgment and weigh their options.

The company’s background, its work

The veterans were working for an Omani company, Dahra Global Technologies, in an associated vertical based out of Doha. It is understood that the said vertical has now been shuttered. The company website was deactivated soon after news broke of the naval officials being incarcerated. If business rivalry had any role to play in the entire saga, its purpose has been singularly achieved.

The company and the kind of work it was doing since 2009-10 needs deeper examination. The area of expertise of Dahra at Doha was in training the Qatar Emiri Naval Forces (QENF). If we go back a few years, this space was largely filled by uniformed personnel from neighbouring countries such as Pakistan and Bahrain. Qatar has a unique demography where expatriates and migrant workers make up almost 88% of the population.

One of the wealthiest countries today, the kingdom of Qatar has traditionally enjoyed a warm and cordial relationship with India. This writer is aware of requests made between 2006 and 2008 from various levels of the Qatari establishment and the QENF to provide training for their sailors and junior officers. This was always seen as a vital cog in the wheel of India-Qatar bilateral defence cooperation and foreign policy. However, incompatible solutions and the Indian side dragging its feet possibly led to private enterprise filling the gaps.

By this time, Commander Purnendu Tiwari (one of the eight men), a distinguished naval veteran, had created a successful enterprise in Singapore. The time was ripe to replicate the model in Qatar, with due adjustments being made to accommodate security concerns, and the culture and milieu of the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (GCC).

With leadership and cooperation from all sides, the model became an instant success, providing a valuable second career option for talented officers and men retiring from the Indian Navy. Contrary to speculative reports that have found their way into the discourse, Cdr. Tiwari and his team were engaged only in junior-level training and had absolutely nothing to do with any submarine project, let alone a classified one.

Cdr. Tiwari was conferred the Pravasi Bhartiya Samman Award by the President of India Ram Nath Kovind in January 2019 for “enhancing India’s image abroad”. Cdr. Tiwari is the first Indian armed forces veteran to be awarded this honour meant for non-resident Indians and a Person of Indian Origin.

India’s defence veterans were delivering a sterling product to the QENF and had blended in with Qatari society. Most of them lived with their families in Qatar, with some family members pursuing their own careers. Cdr. Tiwari’s team, like every Indian among the estimated diaspora of 8,00,000 Indians, was contributing its mite to building Qatar, under the leadership of HRH Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. In my opinion, the veterans had absolutely no interest or incentive in spying or espionage as is being made out in the case against them. What random acts of indiscretion or oversight led to the framing of such serious charges may never be known.

Since their incarceration in September 2022, India has provided the veterans with the best legal assistance. According to family members, three out of six charges stuck, leading to the sentence. There are just two levels left remaining in the legal rung of Qatar (the Court of Appeals and Court of Cassation). The Emir has the power to pardon or offer clemency and is known to have exercised this benevolence. Qatar does not have a long history of executing people, but the geopolitical backdrop against which this saga unfolds holds many uncertainties. Most of the eight veterans are in their late fifties and sixties. Even if the death sentence is commuted to life (25 years), they face the prospect of spending the rest of their lives behind bars.

Impact on diplomatic ties

The terrible turn of events could not have come at a more inopportune juncture for the veterans and their families. Dahra Global Technologies in Qatar is no longer a going concern, which means the personnel and their families have only the Indian government to turn to. India’s nuanced position on the ongoing Israel-Hamas war and support to the Palestinian cause will be put to the test against Qatar’s emerging role in working out a rapprochement between the Arab world and Israel, even as world leaders weigh their options. India’s relationship with Qatar will head south if this diplomatic row is not settled on mutually acceptable terms.

Despite the best legal and diplomatic assistance extended by India, the court has pronounced its judgment. Qatar is a friendly foreign country and there is an existing bilateral agreement to expatriate convicted citizens. However, Article 4 of the agreement excludes the death penalty. India’s status in the Global South, just as that of Qatar’s in the GCC, owes much to the visionary leaders of both countries. There is much to lose if this case festers. It will be far worse if the sentence is executed or the space left behind by Dahra Global is occupied by radical elements inimical to both countries.

I have hope that the Indian political leadership will rise to the challenge and appeal to the Emir’s benevolence to consider a complete and unconditional pardon for all eight naval veterans. This will be in the best interest of both countries. Unprecedented situations call for unprecedented leadership. The solution to seemingly complex problems is often just a few phone calls away.

K.P. Sanjeev Kumar is a retired Indian Navy test pilot. The views expressed are personal

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