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The presence of Indian workers in the Gulf is a win-win situation for both India and the host countries. They build the cities, the roads, and the other comforts in the Gulf and earn enough to build their own dream homes back in India.
India built up its foreign exchange reserves from their remittances. But with such a large number of Indians in the Gulf, it is only natural that some of them occasionally get entangled in legal and criminal issues.
But compared to the situation in India, the Indians in the Gulf are much more disciplined because the legal system there is ruthless and retribution is swift.
On the whole, however, Indians in the Gulf region are dedicated and lawful and that is one of the reasons why Indians are preferred over other nationalities.
Qatar is relatively small, but its wealth on account of its large gas reserves and wise investments abroad is considerable and it has a very positive and modern image abroad, however traditional they are in their laws and lifestyle. It has a large expatriate community.
It has the fourth-highest GDP per capita in the world and it has the world’s third-largest natural gas and oil reserves in the world. It has global exposure even though it is known to support certain radical groups abroad on account of which Saudi Arabia and UAE broke off relations with it, but soon restored them because of their close ties which have remained intact.
India enjoys good relations with Qatar, having eight lakh Indians serving in the various spheres of activity there.
The arrest and sentencing to death of eight former Indian naval officers on charges of spying for a third country, suspected to be Israel, when the entire West Asia is in turmoil, has caused quite some anxiety in India, mostly because eight lives are involved and also because India has adopted a pro-Israeli stand in the present conflict in Gaza.
The men were the employees of a company in Oman, which had deployed them in Qatar to assist in inducting midget submarines in their naval force. They had experience in maintaining submarines in India till they retired or took voluntary retirement before joining the company.
The Indian Government is reported to have cleared their employment in Qatar in the spirit of the defence cooperation existing between the countries.
India's Options; Remembering the Kulbhushan Case
India was given consular access to the prisoners during the trial, but the death sentence by the trial court added a serious dimension to the case.
India’s efforts right from the beginning were to get them to return home, even though it was clear that the legal process would take the matter to the Emir himself and an intervention at the level of the Indian Prime Minister might become necessary.
The first step, however, was for them to appeal to a higher court and wait for its verdict. Such a process must be in place, even though it would drag on for some time because of the intricacies of the case.
The officers have denied the charges against them and the onus is on the Qatari Government to deal with the subject on the basis of the seriousness of the charge. It is believed that the case may drag on because of the legal rigmarole such a case will entail.
Most experts are optimistic that the death sentence would be avoided as Qatar has not executed anyone for the last twenty years and the Emir would probably give amnesty to the officers as he often does during the Eid season, which is a few months away.
The other option being considered is for the officers to seek mercy, but since they have denied any involvement in the case, seeking mercy may be deemed as admitting guilt.
Another option India has is to approach the International Court of Justice in the Hague, as it did in the case of Kulbhushan Yadav, an Indian arrested in Pakistan on espionage charges and sentenced to death.
Pakistan was very inimical to Yadav right from the beginning because of their suspicion that he was from the Indian intelligence and tortured him to extort a confession.
Consular access was also denied to him. The ICJ verdict prevented Pakistan from executing him, but his release is highly unlikely.
In the case of Qatar, India is not likely to go to the ICJ because of better bilateral relations and the expectation that Qatar would be more objective in examining the evidence. In these circumstances, the ICJ option will be the last resort by India.
'Legally Limited, Diplomatically Much'
Mediation by some friendly countries or a group of countries is another option India has, but in the situation in West Asia on account of the ongoing war, we may not be able to succeed in focussing their attention on this matter at present. They are likely to advise us to wait for the legal procedure to be exhausted before any mediation is attempted.
Our Minister for External Affairs has indicated that India is very much involved in finding a solution and he has also been in touch with the families. In the past, we have sought the help of influential Indians in the region to commute sentences and to get the Indian nationals released.
A similar move may be contemplated in this case. Qatar values the Indian workers at all levels and may consider a resolution of this issue would as helpful.
Most experts on the region like Ambassador K P Fabian, who not only dealt with the region in the Ministry of External Affairs at a critical time but also served as Ambassador in Qatar, believe that the dynamics of our relations with Qatar will ensure that there will be a diplomatic solution to the problem.
Qatar and India have several linkages, which are unlikely to be disrupted on this account.
R Prasannan, a prescient commentator of the Week, answers the question of whether there is hope for the naval officers to return home, by saying, “legally limited, diplomatically much.”
All Indians will have a prayer on their lips as they follow this diplomatic conundrum.
(The writer is a former Ambassador with vast experience in multilateral diplomacy. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)