The death sentence awarded by a court in Qatar to eight former Indian Navy personnel is deeply disturbing. The eight men were taken into custody in August 2022, and kept for months in solitary confinement. Neither Qatar nor the Indian Ministry of External Affairs had made the charges against them public. This has led to unseemly speculation that they were charged with spying for a third country, leading to anguish and confusion among the families of the eight men, seven of whom retired from the Navy at senior ranks. That the government expressed “shock” at the verdict indicates that it was blindsided by the judgement, or that the verdict was contrary to assurances that Qatar might have given. This is an unprecedented situation for the Modi government. In retrospect, the 2016 Kulbhushan Jadhav case presented easier choices because it was Pakistan that India had to deal with. Islamabad’s allegations that Jadhav was an Indian intelligence operative trying to foment terrorism in Pakistan could be dismissed by India as a baseless rant by a hostile country. Such an option is not available in the current case with Qatar, with whom India has assiduously cultivated friendly ties over the last few years.
Qatar and India have robust economic relations with an annual bilateral trade at about 15 billion dollars, of which nearly 80% constitutes Indian imports. Qatar is India’s primary supplier of gas, meeting as much as 42% of Indian LNG requirements. The two countries also have a strong defence relationship, mainly between the two navies. The Indian diaspora, which includes a large number of medical personnel, is about eight lakh strong, the largest expatriate community in that country, constituting well over a quarter of the 2.7 million population. As is evident from the mediatory role it is playing to secure the release of Israeli hostages from Hamas in the current Israel-Palestine standoff, the tiny country punches well above its weight due to the influence it carries with many of the principal players, including Washington and Tel Aviv. Simply put, India cannot deal with Qatar with the aggressive muscularity that it showed recently with Canada, or the disdain with which it generally treats Pakistan.
How much bearing the current crisis will have on this particular case is uncertain, but the context is important to bear in mind. Delhi has said it will use all legal and political options available to bring the men back home. Little is known of the Qatari judicial system but despite its opacity, it seems to provide several stages of appeal. The Emir can also exercise his right of pardon. That will require political intervention by Delhi at the highest level. It is encouraging that while not having the best human rights record, Qatar has carried out fewer judicial executions than India in the last two decades. In the coming days and weeks, the families of the convicted men, the wider community of servicemen, as well as the Indian diaspora, will be looking to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Foreign Minister S Jaishankar to bring back the men.
(Published 29 October 2023, 22:26 IST)