India’s first woman to clear Indian Civil Services examinations: All about Chonira Belliappa Muthamma

Chonira Belliappa Muthamma was the first woman to clear one of the toughest exams, the Indian Civil Services examinations in 1948. She was the first Indian woman diplomat who joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1949 and also became India’s first woman IFS Officer and Ambassador/High Commissioner.
Muthamma was born on January 24, 1924 in Virajpet, Karanataka. Her father, who was a forest officer, died when she was too young. Nonetheless, her journey is an inspiration for many, how she courageously fought for her rights and ensured she got what she truly deserved. She is majorly remembered for her successful and effective efforts for gender equality in the Indian Civil Services.
CB Muthamma went to St. Joseph’s Girls School, Madikeri. She completed her graduation from Women’s Christian College, Chennai and MA in English Literature from Presidency College, Chennai.
After completing her studies, she decided to give an attempt to the Indian Civil Services examinations and performed excellently. After clearing the exam, she served in various Indian Embassies. In 1970, she was posted as Indian ambassador to Hungary and later she served as India’s High Commissioner to Accra. In her last posting, she served as Indian Ambassador to the Hague.

The struggles in her life knocked when she gave the interview after clearing the Civil Services examinations. Against her wish, UPSC Board members who took Muthamma’s interview tried to discourage her from joining the Foreign Service. However, she topped the list of Foreign Service and became the first Indian woman IFS Officer. Even after entering the service, she was asked to sign an undertaking that mentioned that she might have to resign from the service after she got ‘married’.
Several ambassadors rejected her giving reasons why sending a woman to a station was not appropriate. At last, she joined the Indian Embassy in Paris where Muthamma realised that some Indian diplomats and her peers in other embassies did not want to have a lady colleague.
In 1979, she moved a petition against the Appointments Committee of Cabinet (ACC) and Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) as she was overlooked for the promotion to Grade 1 of the Indian Foreign Service due to the matter of fact that she was a woman. The Ministry then promoted her, hoping that the apex court would dismiss the case.
CB Muthamma’s case was upheld in 1979 in a landmark verdict by a three-member Bench chaired by Justice VR Krishna Iyer which emphasised “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.”
After her retirement, she became the Indian member of the Independent Commission on Disarmament and Security Issues established by then Swedish PM, Olof Palme. Chonira Belliappa Muthamma died on October 14, 2009.

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