Updated: Sep 22, 2021
The incredible story of Chonira Belliappa Muthamma, the first woman to join the Indian Foreign Service
The most startling fact of Chonira Belliappa Muthamma’s life must be that when, in 1948, she cleared the Indian civil services examination, and ranked first among those who had asked to be made part of the Indian Foreign Service (IFS), she was asked to sign a bond before being allowed to join. The bond said that she would leave the service if she married.
Born in Virajpet in Coorg, Muthamma came in a sense from the world of Indian civil servants. Her father was a forest officer who died when she was very young. Muthamma graduated with a triple gold medal for Women’s Christian College, Madras (Chennai) and then went on to take an MA in English literature from Presidency College, Calcutta (Kolkata).
In the foreign service, she bagged plum postings in London, Washington, and Islamabad, and rose to become the first woman from within the services to be appointed ambassador (to Hungary, then Ghana, and at The Hague).
But her eternal contribution to the Indian civil service and society was her courageous late career challenge to the IFS on the issue of gender equality. Denied a promotion to Grade 1, or the highest grade in the service, Muthamma threatened to take the IFS to court. She had been told that her ‘performance’ had not been up to the mark to merit a promotion – but the department could not explain how or in what ways it had been poor!
Threatened with a court case by such a senior diplomat, the mandarins at India’s Ministry of External Affairs of that time quickly promoted her. At the Supreme Court, while her case was dismissed (after all she had been promoted), the judge (V. R. Krishna Iyer) had rather caustic things to say about the discrimination faced by women in the service.
The judge acidly "the need to overhaul all service rules to remove the stains of sex discrimination, without waiting for ad-hoc inspiration from writ petitions or gender charity" and urged “the need to overhaul all service rules to remove the stains of sex discrimination, without waiting for ad-hoc inspiration from writ petitions or gender charity."
The appearance of this case in court underlined that rule (of that time) in the Indian Foreign Service, rule number 8 (2), under ‘conduct and discipline’ which said that “a woman member of the service shall obtain the permission of the government in writing before her marriage is solemnised. Any time after the marriage, a woman member of the Service may be required to resign from Service, if the government is satisfied that her family and domestic commitments are likely to come in the way of due and efficient discharge of her duties as a member of the Service."
Following this fiasco, the rules of service in the IFS changed and it was no longer mandatory for women officers in the IFS to seek government permission for getting married.
This gender parity was achieved at the price of the sacrifice made by Muthamma. Her opinion about this issue is clear from the title of her book Slain by the System, where she wrote, “When I entered the service, I had to sign an undertaking that I would resign if I got married. This was clearly against the Constitution, but in those early days it did not occur to me to challenge that rule…there was an attitude of vengefulness on the part of the men-a feeling that should be kept in their places, and that they should be encouraged to leave”.
Muthamma’s story teaches us once again that the global order is maintained by the silence of women – and transformed for the better when they speak up.