How India pulled off diplomatic triumph with Qatar

Image source: Satyaagrah


The Narendra Modi-led government is known for having one of the most robust foreign policies in India’s history. Another feather was added to its cap when India pulled off something that seemed impossible. Eight Indian Navy personnel, who were detained and sentenced to death by Qatari authorities on espionage charges, were finally released after India’s diplomatic intervention. In this Blog, I will try to unravel what the alleged espionage case was all about and what went behind the scenes that secured the release of our Navy veterans.

What was the case?

8 former Indian Navy personnel namely: Captain Navtej Singh Gill, Captain Saurabh Vashisht, Commander Purenendu Tiwari, Captain Birendra Kumar Verma, Commander Sugunakar Pakala, Commander Sanjeev Gupta, Commander Amit Nagpal and Sailor Ragesh, were working at a private firm named, Al Dahra in Qatar.

All of the former Navy officers held “unblemished stints” of up to 20 years in the Indian Navy and had held important positions. Captain Gill was even awarded the President’s Gold Medal for excellence from the Naval Academy, He later served as an instructor at the Defence Services Staff College at Wellington.

But, things took an uneven turn in August 2022, when the ex-Navy personnel were arrested by the Qatari authorities on charges of spying on a submarine programme. All this while, no communication was done with the families of the officers who alleged that they weren’t even allowed to meet them.

Although the case till now, remains shrouded in secrecy with nothing actually being made public by India or Qatar, several reports claimed that the 8 personnel were providing sensitive information to Israel. According to unconfirmed speculations, India was sceptic of Qatar’s submarine deal with Italy, as Pakistan (Qatar’s ally) could also access it. Also, Qatar is a huge adversary of Israel with many Hamas leaders actually residing there. So, India and Israel were carrying out this mission to extract the security intelligence of the deal.

Freed Navy Veterans Credits Release To PM Modi's Equation With Qatar. WATCH

PM Modi meeting Qatar Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani (Photo: ABP News )

Legal Developments

This was followed by the bombshell announcement. On October 26, the eight Indians were given ‘death sentences’ by Qatar’s Court of First Instance. India described the ruling as “deeply shocking” and affirmed that it would explore all ‘legal options’ in the case.

In November, an appeal was filed by the Indian side against the death sentence. The Ministry of External Affairs confirmed that the appeal is under process and New Delhi is engaged with authorities in Doha while extending all legal and consular assistance to the Indian nationals. The Indian ambassador in Qatar met the eight ex-Navy personnel and External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar met with their families here in India assuring them of constant support.

In another major development, further planning suspicion, the Al-Dhara Global firm, where these ex-Navy personnel were working, closed all its operations in Doha and all its employees returned to India in May 2023.

But, all this while, neither Qatar provided any details about the spying allegations against the personnel, nor did India ever explain what charges have they actually been sentenced for and what legal arguments, New Delhi is using to appeal against their sentence.

PM Modi’s meeting with Qatar Emir

It was known that India had already taken the matter with Qatar through all possible diplomatic channels. But, in a major development last December, Prime Minister Modi himself met with the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani. The meeting took place on the sidelines of the COP28 Summit in Dubai.

However, it is pertinent to note that the official release of MEA about this meeting did not mention any discussion on the 8 Indian veterans, but it was highly speculated that PM Modi did raise the issue.

QatarEnergy, Petronet sign biggest LNG deal to date | DD News

Petronet LNG signed a long-term deal with Qatar Energy (Photo: DD News)

The Petronet-Qatar Energy Deal

Notably, this case also has parallels to the famous Kulbhushan Jadhav case, a naval commander who is on death row in Pakistan on spying charges. But, fortunately for India, its relations with Qatar are much better. 40% of India’s LNG needs are met by Qatar only. India too, is Qatar’s third biggest source of imports, particularly raw materials for construction and fresh food items. So it is a two-way strong relationship bound by strategic and defence cooperation agreements. Additionally, around 7,00,000 Indian expatriates work in Qatar being an integral part of Qatar’s institutions and workforce.

Just at the start of this month, India’s Petronet LNG company and Qatar Energy company signed a long-term deal. Under this, the former will buy 7.5 million tonnes of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) per annum from the latter. The 20-year deal is an extension of an existing contract for LNG supplies signed in 1999 which runs until 2028. Supplies under the new agreement start in 2028 and continue until 2048. Out of the total LNG purchase, 605 will go to Gail (India) 30% to Indian Oil Corporation Ltd and 10% to Bharat Petroleum Corporation Ltd after regasification—primarily from the Dahej terminal of Petronet LNG Ltd.

Well, the above deal is not officially related to the Navy personnel case. But, the deal coming in so close proximity to the release did put up some speculations. Also, India under its diplomatic leverage, might have offered something. So even if the rumour is true, it shouldn’t be that surprising. Also, it’s not as if jut because Qatar got a deal, they will release their convicts, they have plenty of other sources to make money. There must be something bigger behind the scenes and better be there for the greater good.

Commutation of Sentence

Finally, in a major relief, on December 27, an appellate court in Qatar commuted the death sentence of eight Indian veterans. India’s MEA welcomed the verdict by the Qatari Court of Appeals and confirmed that the sentences have been “reduced”. However, the ministry did not specify what exactly the “reduced” punishment was.

On expected lines, this development was hailed as a ‘big diplomatic win’ for India. At the same time, an interesting fact was brought to notice that a 2014 agreement between India and Qatar can allow the 8 Indian veterans to return to India and serve the remaining sentence here. In January this year, the MEA said that a 60-day window has opened to appeal the case in the highest court in Qatar. It said that India is looking into the “legal aspects” but, again no further details were given as to what steps India will be taking.

How Modi government pulled off safe release of 8 Navy veterans from Qatar -  India Today

The 7 ex-Navy officials at the airport after returning from Qatari detention (Photo: India Today)

The Return of the Veterans

Finally, all the wait was laid to rest. At around 2:30 am on February 12, the Navy veterans set foot on their homeland, extinguishing all the distress accumulated over these agonising years. Seven out of the eight navy personnel have returned to India. The eighth personnel has also been released and his return to the homeland is being worked out.

“The Government of India welcomes the release of eight Indian nationals working for the Dahra Global company who were detained in Qatar. Seven out of the eight of them have returned to India. We appreciate the decision by the Amir of the State of Qatar to enable the release and home-coming of these nationals,” the External Affairs Ministry said in a statement after the release of Indian Navy veterans.

After their release, the ex-Navy personnel themselves thanked the Modi government. “We have waited almost for 18 months to be back in India. We are extremely grateful to (PM Modi). It certainly wouldn’t have been possible without his personal intervention,” one of the personnel said.

Diplomatic Triumph

Finally, the story is that seven of our Naval personnel have returned home and with all certainty, the final one will return too (little chance Qatar will ‘release’ 7 and ‘prosecute’ 1). So one has to commend our government and their diplomatic team for it. It was not an easy task to execute and the credit should be given where it is due irrespective of where your political opinion stands.

India maintains very robust ties with the Gulf countries. This is again an area where significant strides have been made under the Modi government. And this very well worked as the leverage for India is securing the release of ex-Navy personnel. Now, if I can give anecdotes here; PM Modi after his UAE visit, went to Qatar (of course to thank the Emir), but the pertinent fact here is that Qatar happens to be an adversary of UAE, but India has maintained good ties with both. So managing ties with

Also, what I really think helped India is the way it handled the case. I mean, it never created any unneeded fuss on the issue. Nor did BJP’s IT cell or social media team come out guns blazing against Qatar, which could have titled the sentiment in Doha against New Delhi. India respected the Qatari law system and tried to secure the release through requests while banking on its diplomatic leverage and intervention at the highest level.

Finally, whether the spying allegations are true or false and are true, whether right or wrong. See if is true or not, you might never get to know, keeping in mind, that no official word has been given on the case by India or Qatar even after the release. For the second question, I pointed this out in the Pannun blog as well, espionage is a fact of the day and there is no right or wrong here. The only rule is ‘NOT TO GET CAUGHT’. Even if this was an espionage case (I think it was) there is nothing to be ashamed of, because I am pretty sure it was a part of national security. At last, I am happy that our ex-Navy heroes are back and I just wish them, our government as well as other sets of spies across the world…Thank You and All the Best.



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