cb muthamma: Never back down or back down: CB Muthamma’s advice to Indian female diplomats

Just a year after India won its freedom, an extraordinary person became the first woman to enter a top civil service via examination, that too, surpassing it and not just eliminating it: CB Muthamma , who joined the Indian Foreign Service. In the 75th year of independence, as three women won the top three ranks of this exam for the second time, my thoughts return to this gallant diplomat whom I had the honor and privilege to call Muthu Aunty.

Too many of us today take for granted many things that women of previous generations had to fight for. While we welcome the expansion of our opportunities and our rights, it is also imperative to celebrate the pioneers, especially in the civil service, where it is now quite common to see women in the highest positions – presaging a time in the near future when the highest positions in the Center and State governments will be held by them.

Until she moved to Bengaluru due to failing health – she died in 2009 – Muthu Aunty would make it a point to give a pep talk to all female Indian foreign service trainees. His mantra was simple: never back down or bow to anyone. Already. “I’ve never been second to anyone in my life,” she would say to them (and to me too, albeit separately!) with her characteristic vigorous enunciation. “And there’s no reason any of you should either!”

At first, Muthu Aunty, who came from a clan of Coorg warriors and shone academically in Madras, hardly seemed to me like the type to push back against the patriarchy so pugnaciously. After all, she looked like a cute, plump granny dressed in a saree with curly gray hair in a bun and silver-rimmed glasses. But she held on and fought the good fight at a time when it wasn’t fashionable; and she did not receive the support that so many female pioneers receive today.

This was a first lesson for me not to be misled by stereotypes. I realized that pioneers come in all shapes and sizes. Key to the character of Muthu Aunty, and indeed of all those women who fought for their space, was a deep commitment to principles and a strong belief in one’s own abilities and destiny. This was not easy to do in a country that had just thrown off the shackles of colonialism but retained most of its gender biases in the labyrinths of government.

It must be said, however, that diplomacy was not her forte, despite the career she had chosen: she called a spade a spade – and even a shovel if necessary. His directness was legendary, as was his colorful language. My dad would often do a metaphorical dive behind the couch rather than oppose her on a contentious topic. And these qualities also stood her in good stead at a time when female civil servants tended to be underestimated or ignored.

By the time I was old enough to get to know her properly, she was already a senior and had had several run-ins with sexist guards at the early utilities. She had, for example, fought (and won) the right to take her mother as an “official hostess” when she was appointed ambassador. Some male colleagues had even brought unrelated women in this capacity, but as a female civil servant, she was not expected to take advantage of this “benefit” of ambassadorship!

More importantly, she sued the government in the Supreme Court over the opaque way eligible officials were appointed to so-called ‘grade A’ ambassadorial posts when she discovered they were all filled by men. while women of equal seniority and experience had been sent to relatively unimportant countries. The government had to back down and finally put in place specific and clear performance criteria for appointments.

A big break with the past is particularly relevant for those who take hard-won equal rights for granted: when Muthu Aunty joined the IFS in 1948, female diplomats had to resign if they married. Unsurprisingly, she remained single. It is unthinkable today for the government to interfere to such an extent in the lives of its female civil servants. Today, three married women have become foreign ministers, starting with Chokila Iyer in 2001.

How much India and Indian public services – especially the IFS – have changed since Muthu Aunty joined 74 years ago is abundantly clear. That it is impossible today for female officers not to be considered equal in any task or position is largely due to veeranganas like Muthu Aunty. So I could almost see her pumping her fist and saying “Yes!! Well done, ladies!” last month, when once again three women dominated the UPSC exams.