The text of the inaugural C. B. Muthamma lecture delivered by Ambassador Nirupama Rao Menon on January 24, 2023.
I am absolutely privileged to deliver the inaugural C.B. Muthamma lecture and I thank the Nehru Centre at the High Commission of India in the United Kingdom and Global Order, the New Delhi-based international affairs digital platform and publication, for inviting me to speak today. This lecture honours a pioneering woman diplomat who blazed a magnificent and brilliantly luminous trail for many after her to follow. Ambassador Muthamma was a woman of great substance, of unflinching courage, willing to stand and deal, the sheer force of whose intellect and protean, incisive mind, whose passionate commitment to justice for all, should make women diplomats the world over proud. Remembering her, I also recall the words of an old friend, that her “life-story is a lesson in what it takes to be a woman in diplomacy – dignity, self-assurance and the ability to laugh at this world of men who think they make all the difference.” Hers is a legacy beyond borders.
For many Indian women, and particularly those of us who have served, or serve, in the Indian Foreign Service, the life of Ambassador Chonira Belliappa Muthamma, or ‘Muthu’ as she was affectionately known, is legend. She grew to adulthood during India’s freedom movement, a time when the emancipation of Indian women was very much at the forefront, when the lifetime achievements of women like Sarojini Naidu, Kamaladevi Chattopadhaya, Hansa Mehta, Vijayalakshmi Pandit, Ammu Swaminathan and Lakshmi Menon, just to name a few, provided inspiration and hope to many of their sisters across the national landscape. Muthamma was herself greatly supported and encouraged by her widowed mother, who against tremendous odds or social prejudice and patriarchal belief, educated her three daughters, and instilled the belief and self-confidence in them that they were second to none. It was this upbringing and a national environment at the dawn of freedom, a brave new world, that brought Muthamma into the newly-constituted Indian Foreign Service in 1949, as our first woman career diplomat. The world of bureaucracy she was entering was not perfect, it was a bastion of male privilege, even if our new Constitution enshrined equality for women in every sphere of national life. The reality did not measure up to the ideal, the norm was different. It was the same across the world when it came to women in diplomacy. There was no place for them, they were hardly welcome, the men were uncomfortable about the presence of women in these corridors of power and policy. But, they were women with minds of their own. The writer Narayani Basu notes that “None of the women who cleared the IFS examinations were token representatives. Every one of them had a vision for how she wanted India to grow.”
Discrimination was literally the coin of the realm when it came to the barriers that women faced. For one, there was the infamous marriage rule. A married woman was not eligible to apply or take the examination for entry into the Foreign Service. A serving woman officer could not expect to continue to serve once she acquired a husband, the egregious, unwritten, but widely-held argument being that married women could not be trusted as they would share national secrets with their husbands! The hard-won career of a woman officer could be disposed off by the stroke of a bureaucratic pen. An entirely male hierarchy determined the fate of such women officers. Little wonder that this gender-discriminatory rule did not deserve to exist. It was removed in due course, but the problem of stereotypical male attitudes regarding women was more difficult to do away with. It is a problem that societies across the world continue to face.
These early women entrants to the Indian Foreign Service were equal to their male colleagues in terms of their intellectual abilities, their grasp of international affairs and the ways of diplomacy, their power of articulation of the written and spoken word, and it is a pity that the nation lost them at the altar of gender discrimination. We remember women like Rama Mehta, Mira Malik (later Sinha) and Surjit Mansingh, who all left the Foreign Service on marriage. Mira Malik was the first woman officer who specialized in the Chinese language and in her post-Foreign Service career she became one of our most distinguished Sinologists.
Standing on the shoulders of women like these, later generations of Indian Foreign Service women officers have shattered many glass ceilings, handling some of the most sensitive and complex diplomatic assignments both at Headquarters in New Delhi and in our missions abroad.
Muthamma led the charge against the bastions of male privilege and prejudice. She had climbed several glass cliffs in the Foreign Service and become India’s first career woman ambassador on her appointment as Head of Mission to Hungary in 1970. She had served on the Pakistan and America desks in the Ministry of External Affairs. But the battle was yet to be won. In the late nineteen-seventies, she went to the Supreme Court of India to seek justice in the face of her being denied promotion to Grade I of the Indian Foreign Service. That struggle is well known and the stuff of legend. We recall the historic words of Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer in pronouncing judgment in the case: “The misogynous posture (of the Ministry of External Affairs) is a hangover of the masculine culture of manacling the weaker sex, forgetting how our struggle for national freedom was also a battle against women’s thralldom.” Muthamma won her case and in the process this also became the rallying point for women in the Foreign Service to find their voice, to speak out for justice and equality, and to seek accountability from those in the system that questioned their abilities, their experience and their professional dedication. That, coupled with an ill-advised missive from the Ministry addressed only to women officers, charging them with ‘wanting’ special privileges, and threatening dismissal became the sparks that started the prairie fire. At the centre of these so-called special “privileges” was the Ministry’s charging women as wanting to be with their husbands. Many women questioned the Ministry, asking as a counter whether it should be assumed that the men did not want to be with their wives. There was no answer.
Muthamma was not just a crusader for the rights of women diplomats although her tenacity was unparalleled in a day when there were no tweet storms and mass email actions. She knew instinctively that women needed visibility, that oppressive structures needed to be dismantled, that women needed participation, that biases needed to be broken and that the system needed to practice accountability. She raised her voice, so that we can be heard, today. She knew that women are not taken seriously enough in the systems we encounter. Women have always tended to be interrupted, to be talked over. Anne-Marie Slaughter, the former Head of Policy Planning in the State Department calls it the authority gap: the measure of how much more seriously we take men than women. Muthamma felt the need to tackle that gap.
Let us also celebrate the fact of her formidable intellect, her profoundly humanitarian consciousness, the courageous ability to speak truth to power, to question shibboleths and mantras that are often handed down in the system as sacrosanct policy principles. She was truly that ‘first woman’, that fearless fighter of the status quo, to use Narayani Basu’s words.
Reading Muthamma’s collection of essays, Slain by the System, published in 2003 is a revelation in itself. What you encounter is the mind that questions, that takes nothing for granted, that is not limited by limits that a male dominated society prescribes for women, and above all, a fighter for what India represents to her, in the words of Rukmini Sekhar who published these essays. Her range is immense, her mind like an ocean. She analyses the Constitution, points out how to strengthen the diversity of India, our heterogeneity. She is deeply concerned about poverty and destitution affecting many of our countrymen and women. She says we “have to run fast enough not merely to stand still” not only to tackle the deprivation of millions, but also “to keep pace with the nations ahead of us, and if possible to catch up and outpace them.”
She is fierce in her attack on what she calls stock phrases like ‘interdependence’ because they only perpetuate the subordination of the developing world to the developed. She is clear that national strength is the only way to international strength whether it is in trade or sports or any other field. She has little patience for verbal principles of Non-alignment saying it can hardly be equated with independence and had not saved decolonized nations from great power pressure and was actually as she termed it, “dependence on both blocs”. She wants practical strategies for peace and progress. She writes on the inclusive religious culture of India. She speaks of the “unbounded freedom of thought and belief, this lack of bigotry” which prevails in Indian religions, as being beyond doubt, “the single most important factor that makes democracy possible in this country.” “The belief in plurality and diversity, and not uniformity” as a practical principle of national life forms the very basis for our democracy and our society, in her view.
Of interest is her view, her image, her idea of India. India to her, is not just a large country, it is a vast country. This vastness combined with its civilization which is of great depth and breadth, its large population, the sanity and humanity of our people, our colossal diversity, India’s strategic location on the globe, helps it exert a huge impact on the world. She is impatient with what she calls the “slippery slope of second-hand slogans and pseudo policies” because these do not have an understanding of the basic strengths of our country. She sees in India a combination of high potential combined with poor performance, to use her words. She is impatient with India petitioning the West to declare Pakistan a terrorist state saying that the prime criterion of the protection of the national interest can only be done at first-hand through one’s own strength. This strength has many dimensions – military, economic, internal cohesion and political stability and the capacity to manipulate the existing factors in the international situation. These are her words: “The beginning of all wisdom, in international affairs, is the determination and the courage to defend national interest.” She is clear that the notion of justice is not just about human rights but about human duties, where everybody has the consciousness of what he or she owes others which again means self-restraint and the contribution of every individual to the building of a harmonious society. Her goal is the humane society. Peace, as the basis for a civilized society, has to begin in the minds of men, and women.
Of course, there is no doubt that India is in a very different place from where the country was in those early years after independence when Muthamma began her illustrious career. We are the fifth largest economy in the world, with foreign exchange reserves that are over 600 billion US dollars, with the world’s second largest army, our business moguls figure in the global list of billionaires, a resolute and resilient democracy, an over USD 3 trillion economy. The future of Asia will be defined by India and our neighbour, China. Even our other inimical neighbour, Pakistan acknowledges that India’s global imprint far outweighs its own with a widening net of global influence and impact.
The strength of women in the Indian Foreign Service has grown too but the numbers do not add up to the potential that greater representation can achieve. Of a total number of 1115 officers in the Foreign Service, there are 253 women, ten who are Ambassadors and four High Commissioners. It is a climb upwards, perhaps not on a clearly delineated staircase, for the path is not completely paved, but the map of Indian diplomacy is far more populated with women than ever before. For the Foreign Service at least, the “invisibilization” of women is behind us. In recently recruited batches of officers, the representation of women is almost 50 percent of the total. But still the question persists, are we just following an approach of “add and stir” by mixing in more female foreign service recruits into the general service mix or, are these young women enabled to bring their own visions of the world and the region to bear on the conduct of India’s diplomacy so as to imbue it with feminine gravitas and meaning?
To my mind, more and more women in the foreign service can provide more empathetic and inclusive leadership, the casting vote in favor of constructive dialogue, and constitute an impressive manifestation of “smart power”, combining both hard and soft power, especially as negotiators in conflict. Women in the service I believe can particularly impact service planning, service conditions, administrative reform, public diplomacy strategy, development diplomacy, soft power enunciation, and the provision of inputs in security and foreign policy that amplify the space for dialogue, connectivity across borders, confidence-building measures, demilitarization and mechanisms for tension defusing and reduction. Younger women diplomats must be inspired to become inspirational. Inspirational enough to give voice to a world order run by women in pant suits or sarees. They must be inspired to maintain that foreign policy is relevant to all of us, equally as women just as men feel this policy space is theirs or have felt so, all these years, and get them to realize that girls and women like us are equal players who demand respect and being listened to. It is not only women’s issues that concern us, but issues of human health, human security, pandemics, trade negotiations, migration, refugees, economic sanctions, peace treaties, border agreements, maritime law and disputes, cross-border movements, including fisheries, statelessness, and much more.
Lakshmi Menon was not off the mark when she noted all those years ago that the greatest, the most persistent and subtle opposition to women’s participation, especially at the higher levels, comes from the reluctance of men to share or surrender power. Said she, “A woman here and a woman there may be holding a position high enough to be marked, but one swallow does not make a summer.” She added a passionate plea for the participation of more and more women at the policy-making and managerial levels “so that their thinking and planning for a peaceful world order could be brought within the realms of possibility.” You cannot empower women if you do not give them power.
Women have a predisposition to diplomacy - it is wired into our genes. Aristophanes’ comedy, Lysistrate (400 BC) is about women from three different cities who frustrated by the lack of success of men in matters of war and peace, organize themselves to end the Peloponnesian war. The metaphor Aristophanes used for the work of these women was weaving, “to portray women of exceptional diplomatic ability, who pull together the strands of society, to negotiate peace and ‘weave the fabric of nations’.” In an ideal world, there would be recognition of these innate qualities of women.
The kind of lives we lead as female diplomats are challenging to say the least. We are nomads for the most of our time in the professions, managing an extremely complex work-family balance. Bringing up children when their fathers are absent because of their own professional commitments that keep them in another country or location for long periods, is very, very complicated. Being a woman diplomat calls for enormous reserves of mental and physical strength. I can say that from personal experience. Men run marathons and receive encomiums. Women are running a marathon constantly when they manage these dual worlds – their profession and their family responsibilities, without receiving any recognition for the running that never stops. Managing family relationships while dealing with all the demands your profession places on you is running the mother of marathons. It is not for the faint-hearted.
Given that nationally, the policy of our government is to further the cause and welfare of our female population, their health, education, livelihoods, and their upward mobility and representation in key national institutions, there should be no barrier in our articulating these basic values in the definition of our global outlook and our foreign policy. For instance, the government could consider appointing a female Ambassador for Global Women’s Issues (as the Obama administration did with Melanne Verveer) or create an office for Policy Planning on Women in Foreign Policy that would look at the whole gamut of women’s representation in policy making, ensuring that women’s issues, inclusion and diversity find a place in our development diplomacy, disaster management, humanitarian assistance, and also in regional cooperation in trade, education, and health, besides ensuring a voice for women in conflict prevention and peace-making. Our election to the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women in 2020 places us in a particularly good place to articulate and advocate issues of gender equity and women’s rights.
The start of the post-WWII era in international relations saw the meteoric rise in the participation of women in envisioning and formulating key principles of the multilateral system as we know it today. We need more than a meteoric shower of competent women to transform the international system today. Think of the contributions of women like Hansa Mehta who introduced the concept of human rights as a fitting substitute for the stock historic phrase the rights of man. Think of Vijayalakshmi Pandit as the first woman President of the United Nations General Assembly saying famously that it is better to sweat in peace than bleed in war. The women diplomats of today must be heard because they can contribute to the making of a better world, they bring value to the table. The multilateral system must be nourished by dialogue, by resilience and hope to replace anarchy and power politics. We need more women in peacekeeping, in the making of peace agreements which can be much more durable and effective if women are involved in the negotiations. The challenge facing international diplomacy, besides the questions of war and peace and development, is how to amplify the voices of women who are a little more than half the world’s population.
The world is talking today about feminism in foreign policy. Feminism need not be the word to ring alarm bells among the men. Feminism in foreign policy is a recognition of the innate feminine values that guide human culture and civilization, that are at the root of settled human societies that grow and prosper. It is about using diplomacy as the first line of defence. In fact, as some scholars point out, much of Indian foreign policy incorporates the feminine principles of dialogue, fairness, justice, forbearance, the rejection of war, the stress on a law-based international order, on seeing the world as a family, on the concepts of fraternity, to use a phrase from Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, breaking down divisions that separate through the medium of dialogue and inclusiveness. India’s theme for the G20 Presidency: One Earth, One Family, One Future— resonates with the core of feminist foreign policy principles. The soul of India is essentially a feminine one, and it has been aptly said that Indian women represent the essence of India. Muthamma personified that feminine soul of India.
Again, she has the last word. Writing in 1984, she said, “One looks forward to the day when women’s work is recognised, and their rights, both in economic and human terms, are ungrudgingly accorded to them”. In many ways, the universe is opening up a great deal more for all women who work, and to the feminine soul. Muthamma’s greatest gift to us was the enabling, through her decision to fight bias against women in the foreign service, of the landmark Supreme Court judgement in her favour. After that, as she said, we could never go back, we could only go forward. As we seek to grasp the future, her memory, like the meaning of her name, is gem-like; she is a shining star. The stone that she cast across the water continues to create so many ripples. It is the sheer power of her example that inspires us to this day with strength, courage and confidence to aspire and to achieve the better world we dream of. Going forward is the only way to go.