Saving the Qatar 8: Did Hubris Hurt India’s Diplomacy?

It seems the Indian government may not have realised how high Qatar had raised the stakes in this case, at the very outset. The strategy now appears to be pulling off a politically rewarding pardon ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.

The month of Ramadan in 2024 starts on March 10 and ends on April 9. The dates are ideal for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to score a major diplomatic coup, right in the middle of the 2024 Lok Sabha election campaign.

The anticipated headlines may say:

‘PM Intervenes to Save The Lives of 8 Indian Ex-Naval Personnel’,

‘Modi Hai to Mumkin Hai: Qatar Emir Pardons 8 Ex-Indian Navy Personnel After PM Intervenes’

‘Death Sentence Dropped: Qatar Emir ‘Ramadan Pardon’ is All Thanks to Modi’

Primetime news channels ‘aligned’ to the government would play up yet another ‘big win’ for the PM’s diplomacy and ‘personal touch’. The families of the eight former Naval officers may finally be allowed to appear on air, after 18 months of being practically ‘blacked out’ by the media. The ‘big pardon’ would be tom-tommed in election speeches across the country, it would be all over social media. It would underscore India’s ‘Vishwaguru’ status yet again, and we would be reminded that it’s all the PM’s doing.

It’s a high-risk, high-reward game. But is it worth it?

Is it worth the lives of eight former Indian Navy officers currently on death row in a prison in Qatar? Is it worth all the months that their families have spent in the dark, with little clue about the fate of these sailors, with almost no real information about what’s being done, if anything, about saving their lives and securing their freedom?

Taking the game ‘deep’, a big mistake

In cricket terms, it’s the risky approach of taking the game ‘deep’ during a tough run-chase. Instead of pushing for the occasional boundary in the middle overs, the batters go into a defensive, ‘doing-very-little’ mode, hoping to catch up in the death overs. Except by then, the required run rate gets too high, and the game is lost.

Did India hold off pushing hard, and at the required top-most level, for the freedom of the ‘Qatar 8’? And has that now made an already tough task, exponentially harder?

There are three questions to answer:

First, did India underestimate Qatar?

Second, how does the ‘death sentence’ impact India’s position?

Third, does the Gaza conflict further complicate this matter?

Qatar raised the stakes in 2022 itself, which India missed

Let’s also understand that the exact nature of the charges against the Qatar 8 has now receded in relevance. People in India may have pointed out months ago that none of these men had dealt with submarines in their naval careers, and yet were reportedly charged with ‘spying on behalf of Israel’ for information about ‘stealth technology’ in Italian midget submarines. We may have also asked why Israel would need details of Italian submarine tech, when it has unfettered access to all this, and more, from the US. But the time for raising such questions has passed.

More worryingly, it seems the Indian government may not have realised how high Qatar had raised the stakes in this case, at the very outset. Considering that the eight men were picked up in the dead of night, with their own families not being given any details for weeks, with India’s embassy in Qatar having no initial idea about their whereabouts, let alone getting consular and legal access – it should have been clear back then that the charges, whatever they may be, were being taken very seriously by Qatar. And that Qatar itself, needed to be taken more seriously.

Underestimating Doha

Qatar has grown in stature as a pivotal state in West Asia. It hosted the crucial US-Taliban talks – that alone underlines how smartly it has positioned itself, acceptable to polar opposites as a ‘neutral’ venue for talks. Even as Qatar plays host to a crucial US air base, it also permits Hamas to run a full-fledged office on its soil. Doha is also the headquarters of the Al Jazeera media network, which presents a powerful counter-narrative to events in the region in contrast to most Western media reportage.

In bilateral terms too, Doha has been on the ascendant, subtly demanding more respect from India. On the economic front, Qatar supplies India with 40% of its liquified natural gas (LNG) fuel. Qatar’s exports to India are worth almost $17 billion, way more than India’s exports to Qatar (less than $2 billion). Also, around 7 lakh Indians make a living in Qatar, remitting crores of rupees back home and into India’s economy.

Representative image of migrant workers in Qatar. Photo: ILO/Flickr CC BY NC ND 2.0

Paying the price of ‘hate’ at home  

But beyond the economy, Qatar, more than most other Arab nations in recent times, has been vocal about the steep rise in anti-Muslim rhetoric and violence in India. When BJP spokesperson Nupur Sharma made derogatory remarks about Prophet Mohammed, Qatar led the chorus of Arab condemnation. Sharma’s token apology and equally token suspension from the BJP is not likely to have impressed Qatar, as the radical Hindutva violence and hate have only gathered more momentum in India. Most recently, all was forgiven in the case of serial hate offender, Telangana MLA Raja Singh, as his suspension from the BJP was revoked ahead of the state assembly elections.

The BJP may have calculated that Modi’s ‘personalised’ reach-outs to the leaders of the Arab nations in recent years may get them to look away from the constantly rising anti-Muslim tide in India. But has that happened? Unfortunately not. No amount of back-channel diplomacy has been able to soften Qatar’s attitude towards the eight former sailors. Also, why should India’s diplomacy in West Asia be constantly undermined and come undone by the BJP’s domestic majoritarian politics? And why should these eight Indian citizens, with death sentences hanging over them, pay the price?

Also Read | A Coursemate Appeals: Bring Back Indian Navy Veterans on Death Row in Qatar Now

Calling up the Emir: Is it way too late? 

The key question is: When was the most opportune time for India’s prime minister to pick up the phone and ask the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim Al Thani, to be magnanimous and pardon our men? Almost anyone not looking at this through the lens of the 2024 election, would say that moment was long ago. The almost complete denial of access to the eight sailors, the gravity of the charges, and the intransigence of the Qatar government should have underlined the urgent need for intervention at the very top – before the array of formal charges, before a formal legal process commenced, and certainly long before the death sentences were passed.

Now, instead of asking merely for them to be set free, the starting point of any new round of diplomacy or phone calls will be about cancelling the death sentences. After a pardon, it would then be another arduous push for shorter prison sentences. And if that were achieved, it would be another long haul to request Qatar to allow the men to serve their terms in Indian prisons. And after that, it would be an almost impossible task, for India to get all charges to be dropped, and for the men to walk free.

Gaza conflict hurts chances of a ‘pardon’

But that’s not all. Let’s now add to this list of challenges the fact that we are in the middle of a full-blown, bloody conflict in Gaza. Qatar is an extremely vocal critic of Israel, even relative to other Arab nations. In such a situation – when a court in Doha has pronounced the ‘Qatar 8’ guilty of espionage on behalf of Israel, and issued the most serious punishment possible – what space, if any, is left for our diplomats to manoeuvre? Did our diplomats and the prime minister not foresee this?

As the casualties mount in Gaza, including thousands of civilians, with every news story coming through of hospitals, refugee camps and homes being targeted, with every visual of Israel employing its full military might to flatten Gaza, starve and choke its population – it becomes almost hard to imagine how someone found guilty of spying for Israel in Qatar, may be pardoned.

So now, what consolation can we genuinely offer to the eight families? Can we confidently say to them, wait for a Ramadan ‘miracle’ in 2024?

Rohit Khanna is a journalist and video storyteller. He has been managing editor of The Quint, and is a two-time Ramnath Goenka Award winner.