Qatar is reportedly framing charges against eight former Indian Navy officers who have been detained in the Gulf nation for nearly seven months, dashing their hopes of repatriation to India.

The retired officers, who were working for a private company that reportedly provides training to the Qatari Navy, have been held in solitary confinement since the end of August without a reason being specified. Their families have been seeking the Indian government’s help in securing their release and repatriation. The foreign ministry has said the matter is being dealt with on priority, but it has not been able to achieve a breakthrough even after seven months, prompting questions about its ability to exert diplomatic pressure on Qatar.

All this has played out against the backdrop of India’s strengthening relations with Qatar and Foreign Minister S Jaishankar’s recent suggestion that India is being respected globally for caring for its citizens living abroad.

State of uncertainty

The detained Indian Navy veterans have been informed that charges will be framed against them and that they will stand trial in Qatari courts, the New Indian Express reported on Thursday, citing unidentified persons aware of the development.

The former officers – Captain Navtej Singh Gill, Captain Birendra Kumar Verma, Captain Saurabh Vasisht, Commander Amit Nagpal, Commander Purenendu Tiwari, Commander Sugunakar Pakala, Commander Sanjeev Gupta, and Sailor Ragesh – were detained by Qatar’s intelligence agency from Doha on August 30.

Their bail pleas have been rejected eight times. They have reportedly been treated “with civility” by Qatari authorities. More importantly, they have remained in custody without having any charges framed against them. Until now, that is. The foreign ministry had earlier told the veterans’ families that New Delhi had not been informed of any charges by Qatari authorities.

File photo of Indian naval officers, used for representation. Credit: Prakash Singh/AFP
File photo of Indian naval officers, used for representation. Credit: Prakash Singh/AFP

Initially, some news reports suggested that the veterans had been detained on suspicion of spying for Israel. But Indian news organisations have since cited unidentified intelligence officials as rejecting the theory.

The Indian embassy in Doha reportedly first learned about the detention of the veterans in mid-September and was granted consular access to them in October and December. Since then, their families have been allowed either weekly visits or phone conversations as well.

Some of the detained veterans held key positions on warships and have been recognised for their service. Gill, for example, received the Sword of Honour as a cadet and was the navigation officer for India’s longest-serving warship, INS Viraat. Tiwari, who took voluntary retirement in 2002, was awarded the country’s highest honour for overseas Indians, Pravasi Bharatiya Samman, in 2019 for furthering India ties with Qatar and enhancing the country’s image abroad.

The eight veterans worked for a company called Dahra Global Technologies and Consulting Services. Its website, before it was taken down following the detention of its employees, reportedly mentioned that it provided training to the Qatari Navy. The company reportedly employed over 150 former Indian naval personnel as of December last year. Its chief executive officer, Khamis Al Ajmi, a retired Omani Air Force officer, too was briefly detained when he went to Doha to try and secure his employees’ release. Unlike the former Indian officers, however, Ajmi was freed in November just before Qatar hosted the football world cup, an event Doha used to project pan-Arab solidarity.

No diplomatic heft?

In the last seven months, families of the former officers have repeatedly sought the Indian government’s assistance in securing their release and repatriation to India, mainly on humanitarian grounds.

Navdeep Gill, brother of Captain Gill, told the Print last December that the Indian government must help save the veterans from the ordeal. “We kindly ask the Indian government and Prime Minister Narendra Modi to step in and ensure that they are repatriated,” he said.

Tiwari’s sister Meetu Bhargava told the news website, “I am requesting the Modi government to walk the talk and take care of our veterans who have served the country.”

Bhargava has also repeatedly called on Qatar’s government to repatriate the veterans on humanitarian grounds. “All these aged defence personnel are in mental breakdown condition besides not keeping good health as already most of them are having lots of medical issues because of their age,” she tweeted on March 15.

She had previously said that most of the detained men had lost 10 to 15 kilograms in weight.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani. Credit: Narendra Modi/Twitter
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani. Credit: Narendra Modi/Twitter

The foreign ministry has said attempts are being made to resolve the matter. In December, Jaishankar informed Parliament that securing the release and repatriation of the veterans was a “priority” for the country’s diplomatic machinery. “Their interest is foremost in our mind,” the foreign minister said. “Our ambassadors and senior officials are in touch with the Qatari government. Our effort is, obviously, to ensure that they are not treated unfairly and that sooner we can bring them back home. I assure you that they are strongly in our priorities.”

There have been at least two high-level interactions between New Delhi and Doha since the former officers were detained. Modi and Qatari Emir Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani had a telephonic conversation in October, and India’s Vice President Jagdeep Dhankhar briefly spoke with the Emir in November while in Doha for the world cup. However, the foreign ministry’s statements about these interactions did not mention if this matter was discussed.

Bilateral relations between India and Qatar have strengthened significantly in recent decades. Driven by India’s much-needed import of liquefied natural gas and liquefied petroleum gas, the annual bilateral trade is now valued at around $15 billion. Significantly, the India-Qatar partnership has extended into defence cooperation with the signing of a security pact in 2008, under which India helps train the Qatari Navy.

Why then has the Indian government been unable to secure the veterans’ release so far?

Scroll contacted multiple people generally aware of such matters to seek an answer. But none could explain exactly why the foreign ministry had not been able to put enough diplomatic pressure on Doha to free the veterans.

The foreign ministry did not respond to Scroll’s queries.