New Delhi: During the first six months of this year, India’s mission in Qatar experienced an exponential 11,254% rise in expenditure for legal assistance compared to last year, presumably linked to the ongoing case of eight former Indian naval officers who have been detained on unspecified charges for the past 11 months.
This sharp rise was revealed in a question addressed to the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) in the Lok Sabha last Friday.
In a written answer, the minister of state for external affairs V. Muraleedharan gave a detailed break-up of the funds utilised from the Indian Community Welfare Fund (ICWF) by each of the 119 Indian diplomatic missions and consulates around the world from 2019 till June 2023.
The funding for the ICWF is generated through a charge on consular services offered by each mission. This fund is maintained in a separate account by the mission, and the authority to utilise the funds, within predetermined limits, is delegated to the head of the diplomatic outpost.
It is largely used for providing emergency medical care, air tickets for stranded Indians, legal assistance, boarding and lodging for distressed cases, transportation of mortal remains and payment of small fines for release from jails.
The MEA’s reply, dated July 21, listed the expenditure details in two categories – legal assistance and transportation of mortal remains.
As per the details provided, the expenditure of the Indian mission in Doha on financial assistance in 2019 was Rs 1.87 lakh. After a dip to just about Rs 26,000 in the pandemic year of 2020, it bounced back to Rs 1.79 lakh the next year.
Then, it increased sharply to Rs 7.4 lakh within one year in 2022.
But the current year’s expenditure puts that number to shade. The Indian embassy in Doha spent Rs 8.41 crore in 2023 till June.
In other words, its expenditure on legal assistance increased by 11,254% in the first six months of 2023 alone, compared to all of the previous year.
To put this in perspective, the combined legal assistance disbursed by all Indian missions and consulates from the ICWF amounted to Rs 67.19 lakh for the entire year of 2022.
Excluding the expenditure by the Indian embassy in Qatar, the total amount spent on legal aid by the other Indian missions till June this year is Rs 30.5 lakh.
The Gulf countries host the largest concentration of the Indian diaspora, but even the other major Indian missions in the region have not recorded such significant expenditure on legal aid. The Indian embassy in Riyadh is a distant second, having disbursed funds worth Rs 10.15 lakh for financial aid in the first half of 2023.
Sources told The Wire that the remarkable surge in expenditure on financial aid by the Indian embassy in Doha in the first half of this year was likely related to the ongoing case of the eight former Indian navy veterans who have been detained by Qatari authorities since August 2022.
Indian media reports have claimed that the charges are related to espionage – which carries the death penalty – and that the veterans are accused of spying for Israel.
But earlier this month, MEA spokesperson Arindam Bagchi had said that the “full nature of the charges is not entirely clear”.
As per the latest developments, the veterans’ family members have filed mercy petitions on their behalf.
At a briefing on July 6, Bagchi said that India was “ensuring that our nationals are receiving the required legal services”.
“They are being updated with the proceedings of the case on a regular basis and we are trying to extend all possible support, consul and otherwise, to them and we will continue to share with you updates as the case progresses,” he said.
The Wire received no response from the MEA upon asking whether the Indian mission in Doha was spending from the ICWF for the legal aid of the Indian Navy veterans.
The Indian government has been reticent in taking an aggressive public position to demand the return of the former Indian naval officers.
Earlier in April, the principal opposition Congress party had claimed that while the Modi government had “invested greatly” in improving relations with Qatar, it has not made substantial efforts in expediting the release of the detained Indian nationals.
The MEA spokesperson had responded that India would not interfere in the “legal process”. He had reiterated that India was “extending necessary consular as well as legal assistance”.