India-UAE cooperation in handling terrorism and white-collar crime is suddenly in the spotlight since the Indian investigative agencies got back three high-profile individuals required over the AgustaWestland helicopter deal and the irregular seat-sharing with Gulf carriers. Both issues date from the time of the Congress-led UPA government. The media, by and large, has mixed up extradition with deportation, and generally refers to any transfer as the former. Even the external affairs minister often sometimes the terminology wrong in what it calls a list of “extraditions”.
The confusion is furthered by an impression that the recent transfers are a result of a diplomatic breakthrough by the current NDA government. In fact, the MEA list’s first eight entries pertain to the UAE and begin in 2002. India and the UAE negotiated an extradition treaty in 1997, which was ratified in 1999. India’s problem in getting fugitives from the UAE was that those being sought had committed terrorist acts in India, starting with the 1993 Mumbai bombings, which even split the Dawood Ibrahim gang on communal lines, with Chhota Rajan and his associates walking out. Dawood was till then operating from Dubai, his local sponsor being a top Dubai judge. However, after the bombings, he, his brothers and associates obtained Pakistani protection and even Pakistani passports. This made the UAE reluctant to touch them as it avoided entanglement in India-Pakistan disputes, needing the expatriates of both nations to work in the UAE. All that changed after the 9/11 attacks on the United States.
The MEA list’s opening entry pertains to Aftab Ansari, sought by India for attacking the American consulate in Kolkata. He was not extradited but deported by the UAE on February 20, 2002. This became the standard method for obtaining the custody of Indian fugitives as the UAE cancels the visa, withdraws consent to allow the fugitive to stay in the UAE, and deports him to the country of his nationality. But there were always some transactional and political dimensions, particularly when Dubai was involved. But the initial breakthrough related to persons sought by India for terrorist acts in India. Out of 70 entries in the MEA list, updated to January this year, the UAE fugitives mostly relate to terrorism, including the last high-profile one named Farooq Takla, deported on March 8, 2018. But the three recent cases in 2018-19 are white-collar fugitives. Christian Michel James was extradited after a proper judicial trial in December 2018, with two days of campaigning remaining in the crucial Rajasthan election. The deportation now of Deepak Talwar and Rajiv Saxena occurs weeks before the Lok Sabha electioneering kicks off. All three are sought in connection with cases that point a finger at the Congress-led UPA.
Deepak Talwar went missing from New Delhi once his companies were raided two years ago over alleged malfeasance in the allotment of air-rights to Gulf airlines, clearly at the cost of Air India. In fact, the national carrier faced double jeopardy as not only competition flooded its lucrative Gulf routes but after the merger of Air India with Indian Airlines, it was saddled with new aircraft purchases. Thus, a weakened airline was loaded with more debt, from which it has not recovered since. Of this issue, I have first-hand experience as ambassador to the UAE: as what made Dubai amenable to deport fugitives after 2002 was both the enabling counter-terrorism environment post 9/11, as indeed their desire to get more seats and new destinations from India. But the UPA allowed this lever to disappear in an act of magnanimity, now being seen as having had ulterior financial motives. Talwar is the alleged key to this mystery. But much as such crimes need investigation, the domestic political dimension is obvious. The civil aviation portfolio for much of the UPA government was with the Sharad Pawar-led Nationalist Congress Party, which is critical to the electoral outcome in Maharashtra and possibly even Gujarat.
Similar is the case of Michel and Saxena, but the target here is the Congress Party and the Agusta VVIP helicopter deal, which was cancelled after charges of bribery surfaced in Italy. Michel has been thoroughly grilled by the Enforcement Directorate and the CBI and is now in judicial custody. Saxena is a chartered accountant based in Dubai, who allegedly facilitated the transfer of proceeds of crime in this deal or some earlier unspecified ones. Michel needed to be extradited as he held a British passport and the mere cancellation of his visa could only have led to his deportation to the UK. The India-UAE extradition treaty came into play and proved useful. However, all extraditions are ultimately political acts as even after a determination by a judicial authority, the foreign offices or some designated political authority has to approve it. For instance, among the grounds for refusal of extradition specified in UAE Law No. 39 of 2006 are factors like the alleged act being a political crime or the danger of prosecution on grounds of race, religion, nationality or fear of torture, etc. These may be standard features in extradition treaties, but the determination is political eventually.
Why is the UAE accommodating India at a sensitive pre-election time when the sheer transfer of a fugitive can lead to political insinuations in real time by the Indian investigative agencies leaking snippets to damage Opposition parties. Pollsters are dubbing the next Lok Sabha election as too close to call. The infighting within the CBI, and now its standoff with the West Bengal government clearly breaches the norms of federal governance and constitutional propriety. In this vitiated atmosphere, the UAE may be inadvertently getting into the kind of controversy Russia got into in the last US presidential election. When does cooperation in criminal matters by a foreign power become interference in an electoral process? It’s possible that the UAE may in the meantime seek countervailing favours. Jet Airways’ future hangs in the balance. Will it effectively pass to the Abu Dhabi-owned Etihad’s control as a feeder airline, which Indian guidelines forbid? In that case, it remains moot who harms India’s civil aviation more — those who weakened Air India or those letting a private airline quietly slip out of Indian hands. In politics today’s fugitives may be tomorrow’s rulers, and vice versa....