Meetu Bhargava posted her first tweet ever on October 25 last year, 58 days after seven former officers of the Indian Navy and an ex-sailor in Doha were picked up by the Qatar Security Bureau without any explanation.
Eight navy veterans on death row
Commander Purnendu Tiwari, Captain Navtej Singh Gill, Captain Birendra Kumar Verma, Captain Saurabh Vasisht, Commander Amit Nagpal, Commander Sugunakar Pakala, Commander Sanjeev Gupta and Sailor Ragesh
Bhargava, sister of Commander Purnendu Tiwari (retd), who is among the eight arrested Indians, has been tweeting frequently since then. For the past one year, she has repeatedly tagged Prime Minister Narendra Modi and External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, seeking their intervention for dispelling rumours that Qatar’s ‘Court of First Instance’awarded the death sentences because of their involvement in espionage.
Qatar’s tiny land area camouflages its weight in the global pecking order. Its ultra-deep pockets finance programmes conceived by IMF or the UN. The US has enough trust in Qatar to maintain a military base. The Taliban and Hamas also have enough faith to open their political offices in Doha
The Indian Embassy came to know about the arrests in mid-September last year, about a month after the men were picked up. The Indian government has kept a studied silence on the case, unless it was absolutely necessary. A frustrated Manish Tewari, the MP from Anandpur Sahib, said in the Lok Sabha last year, “It has been 108 days and eight retired senior officers of the Indian Navy are being held in solitary confinement in Qatar. I am reliably informed that some of them are not doing well at all. I had raised the matter in the Lok Sabha that the government refused to answer. My direct question to S Jaishankar is what are the charges against them? Why are they being held incommunicado? What have you done so far to get them released? Simply terming issue sensitive and refusing to answer Calling Attention Motions will not do.”
That is the rub of the case. No one authoritatively knows what the case is actually about. In fact, even their arrest date is an approximation. There is a curtain of silence in Qatar. Despite displaying its fondness for media freedom by bankrolling the Al Jazeera TV channel, an Indian journalist fled Qatar when she tried to probe deeper.
The bland facts are known. The eight Indians were employed along with several other compatriots by an Omani-owned defence services provider company. This company, Dahra Global Technologies and Consultancy Services, provided training, logistics and maintenance services to the Qatari Emiri Naval Force (QENF) for the past four years. The employment of several dozens of Indians by Dahra was also known to the Indian Embassy. They also knew the team leader, Cdr Tiwari (retd), who had lived longer than the rest in Qatar and was awarded the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman Award in 2019 for his role in strengthening bilateral ties.
Nationals from Qatar and Oman, one of whom was the CEO of Dahra Global, were also arrested. The Qatari was given bail after two months of solitary confinement and the Omani was released just before the football World Cup. But the Indians remained locked up.
The matter is grave enough for PM Modi to nominate Joint Secretary in the PMO Deepak Mittal to personally monitor the case. Mittal also is the most intimate with the details. It was on October 1 last year that he, as India’s Ambassador in Doha, first met the detained Indians. Mittal returned to India after he was inducted in the PMO, but the travails of the former officers continued. Their last bail plea was rejected in March this year and after about seven hearings, they were sentenced to death on October 26.
The Foreign Office’s reaction of “shock” on hearing of the death sentences indicated that it was either expecting some other decision, or was taken completely off-guard.
PM Modi, who has extensively deployed personal charm coupled with frequent interactions to establish proximity with world leaders, now has a task on his hands before the next General Elections. Eight men on death row in Qatar and one in Pakistan would be a dent in one of the three USPs being cited by ground-level cadres to boost the PM’s prospects in the 2024 elections: Ram Mandir, Article 370 and raising India’s prestige on the world stage.
Did the government fail to act in the early stages or are the charges so grave that no amount of bureaucrat-level intervention will matter? Expectations among the families of the detained sailors were belied last November. The MEA, when asked, stated that the issue of eight Indian Navy veterans was not raised by Vice-President Jagdeep Dhankhar when he visited Doha for the football World Cup.
Usually, in diplomacy, a quid pro quo takes place in such circumstances. Once a favour is rendered, ways and means are found to send the convicted citizens back to their home country. Or, in case of a hostile relationship like the US-Russia one, the other side makes a reciprocal arrest and then exchanges the two prisoners.
In a world constructed on give and take, the India-Qatar ties are lopsided. Qatar provides social stability to lakhs of Indian homes by employing about seven lakh in a broad range of professions — medicine, engineering, education, finance, banking, media and blue-collar jobs. Their remittances to India are estimated at $7-8 billion (about Rs 60,000 crore) every year. Trade is also lopsided. Qatar exports eight times more to India than it imports. Qatar has also made large investments in India.
Contrary to the impression of the Indian neocons, Qatar’s tiny land area camouflages its weight in the global pecking order. Its ultra-deep pockets generously finance programmes conceived by institutions ranging from the IMF and World Bank to the UN, thus keeping Doha on the right side of all world powers. The US has enough trust in Qatar to maintain a military base. Simultaneously, the Taliban and Hamas also have enough faith in Qatar to open their political offices in Doha.
In the absence of visible diplomatic choices, a pardon seems to be the best option. But there are a few wrinkles of the recent past in the way. The image of India as a benign nation that happily accommodated all faiths is in the past now. In the Nupur Sharma case of disparaging comments about the Prophet, Qatar took the lead among Arab states in summoning the Indian Ambassador and seeking a public apology. Then there is the matter of GST raids against foreign airline companies operating in India, one of which is Qatar Airways. As per reports, it could be liable to pay a penalty running into tens of thousands of crores.
Arab states are generous with pardons, especially around the National Day (December 18 in case of Qatar) or around Ramadan (April to May next year). As with all Arab potentates, PM Modi has maintained close ties with Qatar ruler Sheikh Tamim. The bilateral defence relationship, which is ironically the cause of the tension, blossomed under PM Modi. Like last year, it remains to be seen whether Sheikh Tamim will again greet PM Modi on Diwali. And if he does, whether PM Modi’s ‘personalised’ touch will deliver the results.
It was just before the turn of the century that India turned to Qatar, known as the “world’s gas station”, for its rising LNG needs. A long-term, fixed price deal was signed in 1999. In 2015, India was paying double the prevailing global prices. The warm diaspora ties ensured that Qatar agreed to cut the price by half. This has enabled India to import 1 million tonnes over and above the 7.5 million tonnes in the contract.
The sentencing controversy comes at an inopportune time because Petronet has been negotiating the renewal of the contract. Its officials were confident that India will be able to secure a price better than what China and Bangladesh have agreed to.
There has been some rash talk about India turning the tap off imports from Qatar. Besides the fact that diplomatic and political options should first be exhausted, there are no easy alternatives. India consumes about 40 million tonnes of LNG every year, of which half is imported. Out of the imported 20 million tonnes, Qatar’s share is 42 per cent or 8.5 million tonnes.
An alternative being cited is the France-led $20 billion LNG project in Mozambique in which India has 20 per cent stake. Restarted after an ISIS attack stalled it for two years, India has contracted only 1 million tonnes from it. That would hardly be enough to meet the loss of gas from Qatar.
Doughty, rich, unrepentant
By the time Sheikh Tamim came to the throne in 2013 at the age of 33, his father and grandfather had reaped a rich harvest of IOUs from the West for playing a facilitating role in their wars in Asia. Doha lent its runways for bombing runs by French, Canadian and US fighter jets against Iraq and the Iraq-occupied Kuwait in 1990. It never stopped assisting.
Slowly, the US began quartering its military assets in Qatar, which evolved into the air headquarters of the American military’s Central Command. Fattened with gas reserves which added to its petrodollars, Qatar under Tamim’s father Sheikh Hamad dabbled in the aftermath of the Arab Spring with mixed results.
Qatar backed two armed movements in which it was on the side of the West. In the ousting of Muammar al-Qaddafi, it provided a helping hand to NATO’s bombing campaign, and also funnelled weapons and funds to the rebels. In Syria, after Qatar’s bid to broker peace met an early end, Hamad dispatched weapons and financial aid to the rebels there as well. Neither attempt ended well. In Egypt, Qatar’s backing of the Muslim Brotherhood suffered a setback when the US backed the army in ousting its government in an orgy of state violence.
For years, Saudi Arabia and its allies economically blockaded Qatar for supporting armed Islamists and maintaining friendly ties with Iran. Qatar remained unbowed. Qatar even flew in thousands of cows to make itself self-sufficient in dairy products when the blockade disrupted the supply chain. Like the Taliban, Hamas also maintains its main political office in Doha. And the backing to Hamas, which is in the West’s crosshairs, will be the sternest test in its brief history of supporting militant Islamist groups.
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