honira Belliappa Muthamma (January 24, 1924 – October 14, 2009) was the first woman to clear the Indian Civil Services examinations. She was also the first woman to join the Indian Foreign Service. She was the first Indian woman diplomat as well. Later, she became the first Indian woman Ambassador (or High Commissioner) also. She is remembered for her successful crusade for gender equality in the Indian Civil Services.
Born in Virajpet in Coorg in 1924, Muthamma lost her father, who was a forest officer, when she was nine. Her mother made it a priority to educate their four children well. Muthamma completed her schooling in St.Joseph’s Girls School in Madikeri, and graduated from the Women’s Christian College in Chennai (then Madras) with a triple gold medal. She did her post-graduation in English Literature from Presidency College, Chennai.
C.B. Muthamma was the first woman entrant to the Indian civil services through the UPSC examination, clearing the examination in 1948, and also the first first IFS woman officer, joining the service in 1949. In fact she topped the IFS list that year.When she entered the service, she was made to sign an undertaking that she would resign if she got married.
Muthamma was first posted to the Indian Embassy at Paris. She also went on to serve as a diplomat in Rangoon, London, and on the Pakistan and America Desks in the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi. She was posted as India’s Ambassador to Hungary in 1970. She thus became the first woman from within the service to be appointed Ambassador. Later, she served as Ambassador in Accra in Ghana and afterwards she was made the Indian Ambassador to The Hague in the Netherlands.
Muthamma is known for her successful crusade for gender equality in the Indian Civil Service. The Indian Ministry for external affairs ministry had not promoted CB Muthamma to the post of foreign secretary. Muthamma had to take the Ministry of External Affairs to court when she was denied promotion to Grade I of the service on grounds of “merit”.
She petitioned the government, claiming that she had been overlooked for promotion and that the rules governing the employment were discriminatory. The Ministry promptly promoted her, hoping that the Supreme Court would dismiss the case. The Supreme Court dismissed the case only after ruling that the issues raised by the petitioner could not be dismissed.
Her case was upheld in 1979 in a landmark judgment by a three-member Bench headed by Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer. The court impressed upon the government of India “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.
” This did not deter the then Foreign Secretary, who sent a circular to women officers, threatening to remove them from their posts for seeking “special privileges”. One of these alleged special privileges was the women wanting to be with their husbands. These details find mention in her 2003 book “Slain by the System”.She retired from the IFS in 1982 after 32 years of service.
Justice Krishna Iyer’s judgment of Muthamma’s case described the Foreign Service as ‘misogynist.’ To show the existence of gender discrimination in the services, Iyer cited Rule 8 of the Indian Foreign Service (Conduct and Discipline) Rules which stated 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.” The Supreme Court Judgement ensured that thenceforth it was not mandatory for women officers in the IFS to seek government permission for getting married.