Chonira Belliappa Muthamma, the pioneer of the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) as the first female IFS officer in India, stands as a trailblazer who shattered barriers and championed gender equality during her illustrious career. Her life story is an uplifting narrative of unwavering resolve and tenacity. Muthamma’s accomplishments and her efforts in advancing both the IFS and the women’s rights movement continue to be honored and revered in the present day.
Early Life and Educational Journey
She was born on 24th January 1924, in Virajpet, Coorg. Despite facing adversity following her father’s early demise, she was determined to pursue education. Muthamma excelled in her studies, graduating with honors from Women’s Christian College, Chennai, and obtaining a Master’s degree in English Literature from Presidency College.
Historic Entry into Indian Civil Services
In 1948, Muthamma achieved an extraordinary milestone by becoming the first woman to clear the Indian Civil Services examinations. Her remarkable feat positioned her at the top of the list of candidates for the Indian Foreign Services (IFS), marking the beginning of an illustrious career. However, her entry into the service came with a condition—she had to sign an undertaking that she would resign from her job once she got married.
Trailblazing Diplomatic Career
Muthamma’s diplomatic journey as the first lady IFS officer of India took her to various countries, including postings to Paris, Rangoon, and London. Her career reached a pinnacle in 1970 when she became India’s Ambassador to Hungary, setting a historic precedent as the first woman from within the IFS to hold this position.
Struggle for Gender Equality
Beyond her diplomatic achievements, Muthamma is remembered for her unwavering commitment to gender equality within the Indian Civil Services. When denied a promotion, she challenged discriminatory employment rules, taking the Ministry of External Affairs to court. In a landmark 1979 Supreme Court judgment, her case prevailed, leading to significant changes in service rules. This ruling eliminated the mandatory government permission requirement for women officers’ marriages, marking a critical step toward gender parity.
Legacy and Contributions
Following her retirement in 1982, Muthamma continued her commitment to society. She served on the Independent Commission on Disarmament and Security Issues and was a passionate environmentalist, culinary enthusiast, philanthropist, and author. She made notable contributions, including co-authoring a book on Kodava cuisine and donating land to the Missionaries of Charity for an orphanage and educational purposes.
Her legacy endures as a trailblazer and advocate for women in the Indian Foreign Services and as a symbol of resilience and empowerment. She passed away at the age of 85 in 2009, leaving an indelible mark on India’s diplomatic landscape. Chonira Belliappa Muthamma’s life serves as an inspiration to all, reminding us of the power of determination and the importance of pushing boundaries to champion equality and progress.