In a sudden, shocking turn of events, eight former Indian Navy officials who were incarcerated in Qatar on unknown charges since August 30 last year were “sentenced to death” by a Qatari ‘Court of First Instance’. Families of the eight veterans who held on to a sliver of hope that back-channel efforts may secure their release now face the most extreme prospect — Death Row.
The naval veterans were working for a now-defunct company, Dahra Global Technologies, based out of Doha. Their area of expertise was training and assisting the Qatari Emiri Forces in setting up defence capacities – a vital cog in the wheel of Indo-Qatar bilateral defence cooperation and foreign policy. One of the wealthiest countries today, the tiny kingdom of Qatar has traditionally enjoyed warm and cordial relations with India. Today, an estimated diaspora of 800,000 Indians, along with other nationalities, contribute to building this country in various capacities, brick by brick, under the leadership of Emir Sheikh Tamim Hamad Al Thani.
The details of the present case are far too sketchy and opaque to justify such an extreme sentence in such a short trial. There have hardly been three hearings since the first one on March 22 this year. Since their incarceration in August 2022, the Indian government has provided the veterans with the “best” legal assistance. It is unlikely that substantive arguments from the (local) defence counsel would be heard and addressed in just three hearings over seven months.
The “death sentence” has left the Indian establishment “deeply shocked” as per a Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) statement put out on October 26, soon after sentencing. The MEA statement indicates an ‘unexpected outcome’ while also hinting at the opacity of charges framed against the officials. Meanwhile, Qatar has acted in complete secrecy, moving from trial to conviction in seven months. Apparently, Indian authorities have been taken by complete surprise. Often, when expectations fall woefully short of outcome in such cases, one is left with nothing but tears. I know this from personal experience. I am sure the affected families, even strangers with a conscience, had a lump in their throats when this news broke yesterday.
This episode is personal at many levels. Two of the eight – Commander Sanjeev Gupta and Commander Amit Nagpal – are my coursemates, whom I have known personally for over four decades. It is a fauji truism that nobody – not even your spouse – knows you better than a coursemate.
Sanjeev (First Course of 10+2(X), “Oceans Best”), my namesake and one of the convicted, was known as ‘Chote’ or ‘Don’ in our course. His small frame hides an outsized heart and rock-solid patriotism while his ever-helpful nature earned him the latter epithet. Such is his obsession with propriety and fairness that on one of my earliest visits to his hometown Agra, he dragged my errant auto rickshaw driver all the way from the bus station to the local police station to register a complaint for charging ‘excess to meter’. His peers and subordinates will recount numerous anecdotes where his dildaar and can-do attitude saved the day.
Amit (78 NDA) or ‘Naggy’ as we call him in our circles, is a quintessential gentleman – a man of few words and impeccable character whom I first met when we ran into our NDA coursemates on ships of the training squadron at Kochi. A communication and electronic warfare specialist, he knows the value of “indiscretion” and “radio silence” better than most. Always professional, meticulous and “officer-like” to a fault, Naggy and I did the 61st staff course together at Defence Services Staff College, Wellington, 2005-06. I cannot begin to fathom the fate that befalls him and his family today.
I can sign a character certificate for these two officers with my eyes closed. So can a multitude of naval officials who have known or worked with these eight veterans, including sailor Ragesh. These are honest, above-board gentlemen who worked with the same zeal and commitment in Indian Navy service as in their selected fields post-retirement. I challenge those who know them personally to publicly reveal to me a single act of indiscretion that even remotely points to suspicions of the nature they have allegedly been charged with.
The managing director of their enterprise, Commodore Purnendu Tiwari (I do not know him personally), was felicitated with the Pravasi Bhartiya Samman Award by the President of India Ram Nath Kovind at a glittering ceremony in January 2019 for “enhancing India’s image abroad”. Commodore Tiwari is the first Indian armed forces veteran to be awarded this honour meant for NRIs/PIOs. How did these character certificates suddenly dissolve into a death sentence? What level of bungling led to this impasse? Whom are we seeking to protect? This is something the Indian government needs to come clean about. Not least because Qatar won’t.
There are, quite obviously, missing pieces to this puzzle, yet to be uncovered by investigative noses from India. But, I fear, under a climate of “ab tum chup raho” and nosediving indices of press freedom, facts may never come out, even if they lurk beneath the surface, or, worse still, point to the establishment. Meanwhile, Qatar has proceeded unapologetically, thumbing their noses at our soft-pedalling attitude (remember, our VP visited Qatar during the FIFA World Cup inaugural). The latest judgment can best be described as a resounding slap in the face of Indian diplomacy. Is it okay to be “deeply shocked” at such travesties when Vishwaguru is the image that is unabashedly being promoted by all arms of the government?
I fear this case may go the Kulbhushan Jadhav way (another very unfortunate case, the trail of which case seems to have gone cold) unless we move with alacrity. There are distinct differences, though I sincerely wish India had done more for Kulbhushan’s case. Dahra Global and its verticals were doing above-ground work in a crucial area of Indo-Qatar defence collaboration. This space would undoubtedly have international competitors with enormous clout, money and political patronage who would (undoubtedly) gain from the fall of Dahra Global and the scapegoating of these Indian Navy veterans. Perhaps it is time for the public, if not the government, to seek answers to the old police maxim: “Who benefits from the crime?”
The terrible turn of events couldn’t have come at a more inopportune moment for the convicted veterans and their families. Dahra Global Technologies in Qatar is no longer a going concern, which means the Indian Navy personnel are pretty much on their own. India’s nuanced position on the ongoing Israel-Hamas war and support for the Palestinian cause will be put to the test against Qatar’s emerging role in working out a rapprochement between the Arab world and Israel, even as world leaders weigh their options. Our relationship with Qatar will head south if the ensuing diplomatic row after the latest imbroglio is not settled on mutually acceptable terms. India is in the grip of ICC Cricket World Cup fever, where absurd theatrics and sporting fervour can easily eclipse real-life problems. If all this is not bad enough, India is headed into a general election season where parties will politicise every available opportunity.
The downside of hypnotising billions with an image of a “world leader” or Vishwaguru is that sometimes problems crop up that demand the full agency of such leaders to step in and solve complicated problems. Now the unthinkable has happened – eight Indian Navy veterans are on death row in a friendly foreign country and the MEA under our strongman, S. Jaishankar, is “deeply shocked”. Whatever that means in diplomacy, this event has no precedence in modern India. The minions, influencers, Ambassadors and lawyers have done their bit, had their say. No more passing of the buck is possible. The issue is right here on the table of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the ruler of a wealthy Middle East kingdom that served us 14-month notice.
Bring Back our naval veterans on Death Row in Qatar NOW.
Kaypius is the pen name for the writer, a full-time aviator. He can be reached at [email protected] and tweets at @realkaypius.
This article first appeared on the writer’s blog.