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C.B. Muthamma: How the legacy of India's first woman career diplomat transcends borders

C.B. Muthamma brought to her work the understanding that women need justice and visibility and that oppressive structures must be dismantled

C.B. Muthamma paved the way for women officers who followed, like Nirupama Menon Rao, seen above with Hillary Clinton during her term as ambassador to the US.
C.B. Muthamma paved the way for women officers who followed, like Nirupama Menon Rao, seen above with Hillary Clinton during her term as ambassador to the US. (US department of state from public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

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For many Indian women, and particularly those of us who have served, or serve, in the Indian Foreign Service (IFS), the life of ambassador Chonira Belliappa Muthamma, or “Muthu” as she was affectionately known, is legend. Muthamma, India’s first woman career diplomat, had unflinching courage and her force of intellect and passionate commitment to justice should make women diplomats the world over proud.

Born on 24 January 1924 in Karnataka, Muthamma grew to adulthood during India’s freedom movement, a time when the emancipation of Indian women was very much at the forefront, when the achievements of Sarojini Naidu, Kamaladevi Chattopadhayay, Hansa Mehta, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, Ammu Swaminathan and Lakshmi Menon provided inspiration and hope to many. Muthamma was greatly supported and encouraged by her widowed mother, who, against tremendous odds, social prejudice and patriarchal belief, educated her three daughters and instilled them with the confidence that they were second to none.

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It was this upbringing and a national environment at the dawn of freedom that brought Muthamma into the newly constituted IFS in 1949, as our first woman career diplomat. The world of bureaucracy was a bastion of male privilege, even if our new Constitution enshrined equality for women in every sphere of national life. It was the same across the world when it came to women in diplomacy. There was no place for them, the men were uncomfortable about the presence of women in the corridors of power and policy.

Discrimination was the coin of the realm. For one, there was the infamous marriage rule. A married woman was not eligible to apply or take the examination for entry into the IFS. A woman officer could not continue to serve once she acquired a husband, the egregious, unwritten, but widely-held view being that married women could not be trusted as they would share national secrets with their husbands! An entirely male hierarchy determined the fate of women officers. The rule 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 were equal to their male colleagues in their intellectual abilities and their grasp of international affairs and the ways of diplomacy, and it is a pity the nation lost them to gender discrimination. 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 specialised in the Chinese language and in her post-foreign service career, became one of our most distinguished Sinologists.

C.B. Muthamma, India's first woman career diplomat.
C.B. Muthamma, India's first woman career diplomat. (Wikimedia Commons/Prathikponnanna)

Muthamma led the charge against the bastions of male privilege. She became 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 1970s, she went to the Supreme Court after she was denied promotion to Grade I of the service. Pronouncing the judgement, Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer observed: “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, an outcome that encouraged women in the IFS to speak for equality and seek accountability from those who questioned their abilities, experience and professional dedication.

Muthamma understood that women needed to be taken seriously and that oppressive structures needed to be dismantled. Anne-Marie Slaughter, the former head of policy planning in the US 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.

Reading Muthamma’s collection of essays, Slain By The System, published in 2003 is a revelation. What you encounter is a mind that questions, that takes nothing for granted, and above all, a fighter for what India represents to her. Her range is immense: She analyses the Constitution, points out how to strengthen the diversity of India, our heterogeneity. She is fierce in her attack on 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 in trade or sports. She has little patience for principles of non-alignment, saying it cannot be equated with independence, and was actually “dependence on both blocs”. She writes of the “unbounded freedom of thought and belief, this lack of bigotry” which prevails in Indian religions, as being “the single most important factor that makes democracy possible” in this country.

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Of interest is her idea of India. India to her, is not just a large country, it is a vast country. This vastness combined with its civilisation of great depth and breadth, its large population, its colossal diversity and its strategic location exerts a huge impact on the world. She is impatient with the “slippery slope of second-hand slogans and pseudo policies” that do not reflect the basic strengths of our country. She sees in India a combination of high potential and poor performance, to use her words.

Of course, there is no doubt that India is in a very different place from those early years after independence when Muthamma began her career. We are the fifth largest economy with foreign exchange reserves over $600 billion, and a resolute and resilient democracy with the world’s second largest army. Our business moguls figure in the global list of billionaires. The future of Asia will be defined by India and our neighbour, China.

The strength of women in the IFS has grown too but the numbers do not add up to the potential that greater representation can achieve. Of the 1,115 officers in the foreign service, there are 253 women, 10 of whom are ambassadors and four high commissioners. It continues to be a climb upwards, on a path that is not completely paved, but the “invisibilisation” of women is behind the foreign service. In recently recruited batches of officers, the representation of women is almost 50%. Still the question persists: Are we just following an “add and stir” approach 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 to bear on the conduct of India’s diplomacy so as to imbue it with feminine gravitas?

To my mind, having women in the foreign service can provide more empathetic and inclusive leadership, and constitute an impressive manifestation of “smart power”, combining both hard and soft power, especially as negotiators. Women in the service can particularly impact service planning, service conditions, administrative reform, public diplomacy strategy, development diplomacy, and the provision of inputs in security and foreign policy that amplify the space for dialogue, connectivity across borders, confidence-building measures and demilitarisation. 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, cross-border movements, statelessness, and much more.

The kind of lives we lead as female diplomats are challenging to say the least. We are nomads for the most of our time, managing an extremely complex work-family balance. Bringing up children when fathers are absent because their professional commitments keep them in another 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.

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Given that nationally, the policy of our government is to further the cause and welfare of the female population, there should be no barrier in our articulating feminine values in 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, ensuring that inclusion and diversity find a place in our development diplomacy, disaster management, humanitarian assistance, conflict prevention, and cooperation in trade, education, and health. Our election to the UN Commission on the Status of Women in 2020 places us in a particularly good place to articulate and advocate issues of gender equity.

The post World War II era in international relations saw the 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. 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 UN General Assembly saying famously that it is better to sweat in peace than bleed in war. The challenge facing international diplomacy, besides the questions of war, peace and development, is how to amplify the voices of women.

Again, Muthamma 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”. Hers is a legacy beyond borders.

Nirupama Menon Rao is the author of The Fractured Himalaya: India, China, Tibet 1949-1962. She was ambassador to China from 2006-09, foreign secretary from 2009-11, and ambassador to the US from 2011-13. This article is adapted from the inaugural C.B. Muthamma lecture she delivered at the Nehru Centre at the high commission of India in the UK on 14 February.

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