On October 26th, a Qatari court awarded the death penalty to eight retired Indian navy personnel over charges of ‘espionage’ in a case underway since August 2022. The news came like a bolt from the blue for many Indians as Qatar keeps getting distinguished as India’s ally nation and one of its closest trading partners.
Although the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) refrained from divulging too much, given the confidentiality of the matter, its spokespersons have assured that it would legally contest to safeguard the Indian nationals from getting executed on Qatar’s turf. Presently, the MEA has labelled the execution verdict as “shocking.”
What has happened?
The retirement age for personnel serving in the Indian Navy is significantly lower than those serving in other government departments. Owing to their exceptional expertise in the field of defence and technology, after their retirement, such personnel get recruited by private organisations. In this case, eight retired navy personnel were recruited by a Qatar-based defence consultancy firm named “Dahra Global Technologies and Consultancy Services.”
These eight Indian nationals are:
- The Pravasi Bharatiya Samman (the highest honour conferred on overseas Indians) awardee, Commander Purnendu Tiwari;
- Commander Sanjeev Gupta;
- Commander Sugunakar Pakala;
- Commander Amit Nagpal;
- Captain Navtej Singh Gill;
- Captain Saurabh Vasisht;
- Captain Birendra Kumar Verma;
- and Sailor Ragesh Gopakumar.
All these eight officers boasted a laudable service track record of up to 20 years in the Indian Navy and held critical positions. Some also had the distinction of serving as instructors in the Navy. The company (Dahra) was owned by an Omani national, Khamis al-Ajmi, a retired squadron leader of the Royal Omani Air Force. This firm specialises in training and other defence-related services to Qatar’s armed forces.
It so happened that Qatar and Italy entered into a classified ‘submarine deal.’ Soon, a report by a Pakistan-based intelligence agency alleged that these Indian navy officers had been “spying” over the development of such sophisticated war machinery (submarines with advanced stealth technology), that too, on behalf of Israel (one of Qatar’s arch-nemesis).
This allegation was of grave concern to Qatar’s national security, and their law enforcers arrested the eight retired Indian officers and the Omani owner of the firm in August 2022. Despite the owner, Khamis al-Ajmi, getting released just two months later, the Indian ex-officers have been in solitary confinement until now.
Indian citizens were jailed for over 14 months, but neither the media nor the Government spoke about it.
After getting arrested by Qatar’s intelligence agency, State Security Bureau in Doha, in August 2022, their trial began no earlier than March 2023. The family of the detained navy officers complained that they received no information about the formal charges lodged against them and that their bail petitions were rejected several times.
It was not until September last year that the Indian embassy in Qatar learnt about their arrest. A month later, the embassy personnel were allowed to meet the detainees, but despite the gravity of the charges, it never made it into the news.
Why is this a heavy blow to Indo-Qatar diplomacy?
Qatar is a strategic ally of India in the temperamental political scenario of the Middle East. More than eight lakh Indian citizens live in Qatar, comprising 25% of its population! India and Qatar are each other’s strategic trading partners. India imports a whopping USD 15 billion worth of Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) and Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) from this tiny Gulf nation each year.
The Modi government realises the importance of Indo-Qatar diplomacy, and it is evident from the fact that PM Narendra Modi became the first Indian Prime Minister and Late Sushma Swaraj became the first Indian foreign minister to visit the Gulf nation. Given the rosiness of the Indo-Qatar alliance at the face level, the Government of Qatar has never refrained from grilling the Modi government’s pro-Israeli stance.
After the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war, PM Modi did not waste a moment before empathising with Israel on Twitter (X). Soon, there was a wave of pro-Israeli sloganeering and posts from India’s right-wing faction across social media. Even now, India’s mainstream media appears indifferent to the pathos of civilians stranded in Gaza, and a blatant attempt to create a one-sided narrative through unabating propaganda continues to unload.
At times when the world is divided over the Israel-Palestine conflict, India unofficially appears to have emerged as ‘Israel’s shield.’ Qatar, which has unequivocally held a ‘pro-Palestine stand,’ might have taken offence to what resembles a popularised perception of India’s take on the war in Gaza.
After the Qatari court sentenced the Indian navy officers to death, an MEA spokesperson maintained, “We are deeply shocked by the verdict of the death penalty and are awaiting the detailed judgement. We are in touch with the family members and the legal team, and we are exploring all legal options.”
Even in 2022, when Nupur Sharma wreaked havoc through her derogatory take on Prophet Muhammad, Qatar became the first country to demand an official apology from the Government of India. This time, some are labelling the Qatari court’s slapdash decision an effect of the Modi Government’s soft stance on Israeli atrocities in Gaza.
We maintain that this is no time for speculating, especially when the lives of Indian Navy personnel are on the line. Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar must live up to his reputation and get our soldiers safely back to the Indian turf.