For the country and its diplomats, the return of the retired naval personnel from Qatar is a relief beyond words. For Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), it marks a political success.
What was once a diplomatic embarrassment was turned into a political success in the case of the eight retired Indian naval personnel who were given death sentences in Qatar in October 2023. Seven of them were officers, and one a sailor. Their death sentences were commuted to various periods of imprisonment through a judicial decision in late December last year. But India continued to be quietly engaged with the Qatari authorities, urging them to release all the eight and allow them to return to India. Seven of the eight returned to India in the early hours of February 12.
The eighth, who, according to some reports, is a senior naval officer honoured with the Pravasi Bharati Samman in the past, has also been released. Foreign secretary Vinay Kwatra told the media on the evening of February 12 that the Indian authorities "continue to work with the Qatar government to see how quickly his return to India would be possible". Kwatra refused to enter into the technicalities of how all the eight were set free-if it was a release or a pardon. Instead, he focused on the fact that seven were back and India was working on the return of the eighth who has, as of now, not been allowed by the Qataris to leave the country.
Details Still Not Known
In his media briefing, Kwatra also said "Hon'ble Prime Minister has himself personally supervised all the developments in this case and has never shied away from any initiative that would ensure the return of Indian nationals back home". Significantly, Kwatra did not refer to the External Affairs Minister, or the National Security Adviser, who would have certainly been involved in handling this sensitive case.
While neither government has publicly stated the reasons for the imprisonment, trial, conviction and award of capital punishment to the eight retired naval personnel, it is well known that all this was because the Qataris suspected them to be guilty of spying. They were employed with the Al Dahra company, which was of Omani origin, but had been working for the Qatari defence forces for a long time.
A Sensitive Diplomatic Dimension
Governments do not publicly acknowledge that their executive heads have been directly involved in the handling of cases of espionage against their nationals. Naturally, the heads are briefed by the intelligence agencies about such cases. The intelligence chiefs also involve foreign ministers and senior diplomats in these matters as they impinge on foreign relations. But agencies handle them discreetly and directly with their counterparts. The Al Dahra case, however, did not fall in this 'run of the mill' category.
This became clear when Qatar, a country with which India has intense economic ties and where over 8 lakh Indians live and work, made it publicly known that the eight retired naval personnel had been given death sentences. With this, the case acquired a very sensitive diplomatic dimension. At that time the government said that it was "shocked" by the verdict. But even with all this, governments do not generally accept that their heads have been involved. This is because such matters invariably involve deal-making. And, governments do not want the shadow of any deals to fall on their leader.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, Modi decided to play on the front foot. Kwatra's comments make it clear that the Prime Minister supervised the proceedings as it involved Indians who were in danger abroad. This is a shrewd manoeuvre, especially significant with the elections looming. It will doubtless be used by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in its campaign to stress Modi's global diplomatic standing, which enabled the veterans to return home safely. The gratitude expressed by the seven retired naval personnel and their families for Modi personally could be used to show that Modi especially cares for the honour, lives and safety of India's defence servicemen and women, whether serving or retired.
The December Meeting
Modi met the 43-year-old Qatar Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani on December 1 last year in Dubai on the sidelines of the Climate Change meeting-Conference of Parties (COP 28). This, in the diplomatic parlance, is called a 'pull aside' meeting. But it was photographed, which attracted wide media attention, because at that stage, the retired naval personnel were still facing death sentences. This meeting itself and the photograph signalled that discussions between India and Qatar on this case were taking place and making progress. The progress became evident when four weeks later, the death sentences were dropped.
Indian and Qatari negotiations in this matter took place around the time when the Israeli attack on Gaza was ongoing. Initially, India took a pro-Israeli line. Later, even while stressing its opposition to terrorism, it urged the humanitarian aspects of what was occurring in Gaza should be addressed. It also emphasised the two-state solution as necessary for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian issues. This was significant because Qatar has links with Hamas. Indeed, some of the Hamas leadership is based in Qatar. The country has also been involved in negotiations between Hamas and Israel for the release of Israeli hostages. There is no doubt that Qatar would have welcomed India's new position in the continuing Israeli action in Gaza.
It is noteworthy that on the sidelines of India Energy Week in Goa earlier this month, Petronet LNG Ltd, a joint venture of several Public Sector Companies in the energy field, signed an agreement with Qatar Energy to import 7.5 million metric tonnes of LNG for a 20-year period between 2028 and 2048. The two companies already have two agreements for importing Qatar gas into India. One involves the import of 8.5 million metric tonnes of gas, which was set to conclude in 2028. Hence, the new 20-year agreement is considered an extension of it. Observers note that the new agreement is favourable to India. Furthermore, India's need for imported gas is expected to continue for the next 25 years, even as it significantly expands its production of energy from renewable sources. However, it cannot be denied that it is also beneficial for Qatar to have a deal with India as a steady consumer.
Kwatra announced that Modi would be visiting Qatar on February 14 after his visit to the UAE. He emphasised the comprehensive ties between the two countries and the presence of a strong Indian community as enduring bonds between them. In the UAE, Modi will address the Indian community, likely reiterating his government's commitment to the welfare and safety of Pravasi Bharatis. The return of retired naval personnel will be on everyone's mind, even if Modi does not mention it in his speech.
(The writer is a former diplomat who served as India's Ambassador to Afghanistan and Myanmar, and as secretary, the Ministry of External Affairs.)
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.