Information on Chonira Belliappa Muthamma, the first female to pass the Indian Civil Services examinations in India.

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Chonira Belliappa Muthamma was the first female to pass the notoriously difficult Indian Civil Services exam in 1948. She was the inaugural Indian woman to join the Indian Foreign Service in 1949 and was India’s first female IFS Officer and Ambassador/High Commissioner.

Muthamma was born in Virajpet, Karanataka on January 24, 1924. Unfortunately, her father, who was a forest officer, passed away when she was still young. Nevertheless, her story serves as a source of motivation for many. She is celebrated for her brave fight for her rights and for her successful and impactful actions for gender equality in the Indian Civil Services.

CB Muthamma attended St. Joseph’s Girls School in Madikeri and obtained her graduation from Women’s Christian College in Chennai and her MA in English Literature from Presidency College in Chennai. Subsequently, she tried her luck by taking the Indian Civil Services examinations and did really well. On passing the exam, she was posted in several Indian Embassies. In 1970, she was assigned as the Indian envoy to Hungary and afterwards served as High Commissioner to Accra. Her last assignment was as the Indian Ambassador to The Hague.

After passing the Civil Services examinations, Muthamma was met with opposition when she was interviewed by the UPSC Board members, who were trying to dissuade her from joining the Foreign Service. Nevertheless, she emerged at the top of the list and became the first Indian woman to be appointed an IFS Officer. Even after her accomplishment, she was asked to sign a contract that indicated she may have to relinquish her position after getting ‘married’.

Several ambassadors denied her request due to the perceived inappropriateness of having a female ambassador. Eventually, Muthamma was accepted into the Indian Embassy in Paris, yet some Indian diplomats and her counterparts in other embassies were resistant to having a female colleague.

In 1979, she filed a lawsuit against the Appointments Committee of Cabinet (ACC) and Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) because she was not promoted to Grade 1 of the Indian Foreign Service, despite her qualifications, simply because of her gender. The Ministry then promoted her, with the expectation that the Supreme Court would throw out the case.

In 1979, CB Muthamma’s case was validated in an important decision made by a three-person Bench led by Justice VR Krishna Iyer, which emphasized the need to reform all service regulations to eradicate any trace of discrimination based on gender, instead of relying on judicial procedures or charitable acts of kindness. Upon her retirement, she was appointed as the Indian representative of the Independent Commission on Disarmament and Security Issues created by the Swedish Prime Minister (PM) at the time, Olof Palme. Chonira Belliappa Muthamma passed away on October 14, 2009.

Mayank Tewari


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