Women in the Indian Foreign Service

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Amit Baruah, This service is no longer ‘foreign’ to women, in Hindustan Times Blog, “Wordly Wise.” April 16, 2009.

In a few days from now, India will have a woman ambassador in the United States – a career Indian Foreign Service (IFS) officer. We already have women ambassadors in China, Spain, Australia, Lebanon, Qatar, Switzerland, Slovakia and Ghana. All told, some 25 of our 180 missions and posts abroad are headed by women officers. In the neighbourhood, we have had women high commissioners in Colombo and Dhaka. We’ve also had a woman Foreign Secretary (briefly) and at least two women diplomats have done stints in Islamabad.

It’s a far cry from what India’s first IFS woman officer, C.B. Muthamma, had to face when she joined service in 1949.

In a collection of essays, aptly entitled, Slain by the System, Muthamma, the first woman entrant to the civil services through the UPSC examination, 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.

Kishen Rana pointed out in the Indian Foreign Affairs Journal (October-December 2008) that Mira Sinha Bhattacharjea and Rama Mehta were among those who had to leave the service due to this bizarre rule.

This patently discriminatory rule has long been confined to the dustbins of the Ministry of External Affairs.

A recent article in the Outlook magazine revealed that there were as many as 92 women in the 620-strong IFS cadre – roughly one out of six Foreign Service officers are women.

Many of our women diplomats joining the service today might be amused to read Muthamma’s account of how nobody was willing to post her to any of our missions abroad – on the ground that she might have to go to the airport at night!

Finally, Muthamma had to take the Ministry of External Affairs to court after she was denied promotion to Grade I of the service on grounds of “merit”. In her own words:

My final battle with the Ministry in Delhi was over promotion to the top grade in the service. Another colleague and I, being the only two women in range for promotion to the grade, were both informed that our performances did not justify promotion. But the Ministry was not prepared to answer queries on how precisely our performances had been assessed. I decided to take the Ministry to the Supreme Court, my colleague being reluctant to go to court over the issue. The Ministry promptly promoted me, hoping that the Supreme Court would dismiss the case.

The Supreme Court did dismiss the case, but not before ruling that the issues raised by the petitioner could not be dismissed.

This, however, did not deter the then Foreign Secretary, who sent a circular to women officers, threatening dismissal for seeking “special privileges”.

Again, let’s hear from Muthamma:

What were these alleged special privileges? Wanting to be with their husbands, for one. The writer of the circular was asked whether one should assume that the men did not want to be with their wives. There was no answer.

Arundhati Ghose, one of India’s most formidable diplomats, who battled the West on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, or CTBT, believes that with the entry of women into all spheres of society, the task of the woman diplomat has become easier.

She wrote in a recent article:

Yet…many constraints remain, and are likely to continue for the forseeable future. The up-side of such a situation is that it has been proved that faced with restrictions, obstacles and constraints, Indian women diplomats have, by and large, emerged as outstanding officers, achievers and overachievers; perhaps, they would not have evolved as such, had their journey been a more stress-free one.

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