A January 2004 "secret" note from President Abdul Kalam to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee advised extra caution in the selection of Padma awardees

A January 2004 “secret” note from President Abdul Kalam to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee advised extra caution in the selection of Padma awardees “to ensure that no adverse reaction takes place in regard to conferring of these prestigious awards.”

The note, accessed recently by Right to Information activist Subhash Chandra Agrawal, assumes relevance in the context of the controversial award of Padma Bhushan to American hotelier Sant Singh Chatwal. In his note, Mr. Kalam referred to “some criticism” at the time of the 2003 Padma awards, and emphasised the need to be “extra careful” in deciding “these prestigious awards.”

Mr. Kalam laid down important criteria for the selection of Padma recipients. Among them: There should be “no adverse reports” against the selected candidates “from any of the investigation agencies/organisations,” and no person should be selected for the award “except on the recommendation of the Awards Committee.”

Cases against Chatwal

The Union Home Ministry on Wednesday admitted that between 1992 and 1994, the CBI had registered five cases against Mr. Chatwal and some bank officials for “conniving with the intention to defraud Bank of Baroda and Bank of India.” It, nonetheless, maintained that there was “nothing adverse on record” against Mr. Chatwal because of the five cases, three were closed by the CBI itself while the court discharged Mr. Chatwal in the other two.

Mr. Agarwal filed a batch of six RTI applications on Padma awards with the Home Ministry between June 2007 and January 2009. Dissatisfied with the response, he went in appeal to the Central Information Commission, and managed to lay his hands on a host of crucial documents. One of them was Mr. Kalam’s note. Another was the “secret” report of the K.R. Narayanan (then Vice-President) High Level Review Committee that examined the guidelines for the Padma awards.

Panel recommendation

The committee, which met between July and October 1996, noted that Padma Bhushan was only to be awarded for “exceptional and distinguished service.” It was emphatic that “no Padma award should be conferred except on the recommendation of the Awards Committee.” It sought strict adherence to guidelines and advised that October 1 be observed as the deadline for receiving recommendations.

Final authority

However, in its replies to Mr. Agarwal, the Home Ministry insisted that there was no fixed date for receiving recommendations. It admitted that some of the 2004 awardees had been finalised after the scheduled meetings of the Awards Committee, and that approval for these were taken on telephone. The Home Ministry also held the Prime Minister to be the final authority in deciding the awardees. It said he was entitled to delete the names approved by the Awards Committee.

More In: National | News