Chonira Muthamma, India’s First Woman Career Diplomat

By Nupur Basu, Womens Feature Service

Shocking but true, the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) rules till the 1970s prevented a woman from becoming an Ambassador “in case she leaked the state secrets” after marriage! It was Chonira Muthamma, India’s first woman career diplomat, who forced the system to change.

Muthamma had joined the IFS in 1949 making history as the very first woman to enter the service. Surviving in the male-dominated field was never easy. Despite having served as a diplomat in Paris, Rangoon, London, and on the Pakistan and America Desks in the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi, Muthamma was not considered for the position of Ambassador. This post was simply closed to women. So, the fiery diplomat went to the Supreme Court, challenging gender discriminatory service rules. She won.

The 1979 case (SC 183) opened a Pandora’s Box. Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer upheld Muthamma’s petition and quashed the discriminatory provisions governing Foreign Service personnel. The judge questioned service rules, which prevented a woman from becoming an Ambassador, and called them truly “unconstitutional”. Muthamma was posted to Hungary, as India’s first woman Ambassador. Later, she served as Ambassador in Ghana and the Netherlands, where she completed her last posting at The Hague.

The C.B. Muthamma case had become a tool in the hands not only of women in the civil services but also many women’s groups in India to fight for equality. While her petition sent out a stern message to the Ministry of External Affairs, it also cleared the roadblocks on discriminatory rules regarding promotions in other civil service cases.

India has since then seen two women Foreign secretaries – Chokila Iyer and the present Foreign Secretary, Nirupama Rao – and the number of women ambassadors has also been climbing. The percentage of women in the IFS is also said to have gone up to 17 per cent in 2009.

It was, therefore, only befitting that women honchos in the IFS turned up in a heartfelt show of solidarity at a memorial meeting held for their late pioneer in Delhi recently. Muthamma passed away in Bangalore at the age of 85. “C.B. Muthamma was every inch a pioneer – she brought the issue of gender justice in the services to the centre-stage with her case. She showed us that women can go beyond the limits that they are otherwise sought to be confined in…” Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao, chief guest at the memorial, told a packed hall of former and present ambassadors, editors, artists, and Muthamma’s admirers and friends.

“The sweep of Muthamma’s career showed that she was every inch a trailblazer… She used to waive away references to being the ‘first woman diplomat’ by saying: ‘Someone’s got to be first – I was old enough to have been there first’. In those days women in the diplomatic corps would be told that they couldn’t be given higher responsibilities on flimsy grounds like ‘They can’t go to the airport at night!’ Nowadays, they think nothing of calling us to the office at 2 am!” Rao, who is seen on duty in UK one day and in Kabul the next, told an amused audience.

Chokila Iyer, India’s first woman Foreign Secretary narrated her encounters: “…We had nothing but awe and admiration for her… She had a great fondness for all the lady officers – both as officers and individuals and we used to look to her for direction in matters of history and politics.”

Arundhuti Ghosh, the fiery diplomat who fought for India’s concerns on nuclear issues in Geneva, also heaped praise on Muthamma and called her an “iconic and an exceptional human being”. “I benefited from Muthu’s battles. She lived by example, always showing consideration for people who worked below her. For example, once she pointed out that Joint Secretaries have two air conditioners in their office rooms while non officer-grade staff has none and she gladly gave up her own A/C to share with other staff. That was Muthu for you.”

Born in a modest home in Virajpet in Coorg, a coffee-growing district in southern India, Muthamma lost her father, a forest officer, when she was just nine. Her mother made it a priority to educate her four children and she was sent to the St Joseph’s Girl School in Madikeri where she proved her academic brilliance. She graduated from Chennai’s Women’s Christian College with a triple gold medal and completed her post graduation in English Literature from Presidency College with a distinction. In 1948, Muthamma became the first woman in post-Independent India to sit for the civil services examination, which she topped to enter the IFS in 1949.

After retiring in 1982, Muthamma was nominated as the Indian member of the independent Palme Commission, a non-governmental Commission on Disarmament and Security Issues, which reported directly to the United Nations.

In order to be a pioneer in her times, this exceptional woman had to make many personal sacrifices. A 24×7 career in diplomacy where she was already battling male prejudices made her steer clear of matrimony.

Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi in his vision for India and its poor, Muthamma also remained active in social movements long after her years in the corridors of foreign office. Whether it was helping riot victims and other citizens groups following the anti-Sikh riots in 1984, or after the Babri Mosque demolition, or joining her lot with other eminent citizens to ensure the conduct of free and fair polls in North Indian states, she would devote her energies to any effort that helped alleviate the suffering of disadvantaged Indians.

Author of a book, ‘Slain by the System’, Muthamma remained a serious critic of the Indian political system and its political class. She was a passionate campaigner for political and constitutional reforms and rooted for a Presidential form of government (she had suggested an original model and not one merely copying the US model) arguing that the Parliamentary system ought to be dismantled as it had deteriorated to electoral malpractice.

In her last days she was disappointed that her appeal had fallen on deaf ears. “She was very relevant in the positions she took as she found the institutional reasons for the rot in our system… it was not drawing room-cocktail circuit angst but stemmed from loving one’s country deeply,” said Akbar Khaleeli, former Indian Ambassador to Iran. Muthamma also opposed the use of religion in politics. “India is a land of deep spirituality and we do not need any political party trading in religion to tell us about how to uphold Hinduism,” she would remark firmly.

A believer in the Gandhian philosophy of “if you have more than you need, then it is greed” she walked the talk, donating a large tract of her personal land in New Delhi for a school for orphans to Mother Teresa’s institution. Her philanthropy knew no bounds. The last cheque she signed the week she died was for a library in Gonikoppal High School in her village and a contribution for a business management college building in Virajpet.

Muthamma was a passionate environmentalist and a culinary enthusiast. She wrote ‘The Essential Kodava Cookbook’, compiling forgotten recipes from Coorg. Her manuscript on her mother, a tribute to a woman Muthamma to whom she said she owed all her achievements, is ready and will be published posthumously.

Rao’s concluding remarks at the memorial were a befitting tribute to the woman: “Like Norah in Ibsen’s ‘Doll’s House’ Muthamma used to say, ‘Before all else I am a human being’. Rao also announced that Muthamma’s legacy would be celebrated for posterity in the IFS by instituting an endowment lecture in her name and an award for best female probationer in the ministry so that generations of women IFS officers remember the woman who opened the doors for them.

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