It would be no exaggeration to describe Chonira Belliappa Muthamma as one of the pioneers in the battle for gender equality for women in India. A career diplomat, her entry into the Indian Foreign Service in 1949 was a watershed event as she was India’s first woman diplomat.
But that was just the beginning and in the course of her career, she gained the distinction of being India’s first woman ambassador. Chonira Belliappa Muthamma was also a fighter, who took on the Indian system and fought a battle in the Supreme Court demanding equality for women in the male-dominated Indian civil services.
Her Early Days and Academic Achievements
Born in the beautiful hill district of Kodagu in 1924, Chonira Belliappa Muthamma set high benchmarks for herself during her academic years. She completed her schooling at St Joseph’s school in Madikeri and graduated from the Women’s Christian College in Madras with three gold medals for academic excellence.
After her post-graduation from the Chennai Presidency College, she wrote the Indian Civil Services Examinations in 1948 – a rare event in the days when few women dreamed of having a career of their own.
Her IFS career
Having passed the Indian Civil Services examination, Chonira Belliappa Muthamma joined the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) in 1949. As a diplomat, she worked in different capacities in countries across Europe, Asia and Africa. She hit the headlines once again in 1970 when she was appointed India’s ambassador to Hungary – the first woman to hold the position of ambassador.
She retired from the Foreign Service in 1982 after a successful career spanning 32 years. At the time of her retirement, she was the Indian Ambassador to Hague. But her retirement did not spell the end of her distinguished career and she was nominated as the Indian representative in the Independent Commission on Disarmament and Security Issues.
Her Fight for Gender Equality
Like most career-oriented women, Chonira Belliappa Muthamma’s career too hit the proverbial glass ceiling. She was overlooked for the coveted post of Foreign Secretary. A determined Chonira Belliappa Muthamma took the Indian government to court in 1979. She filed a petition in the court stating that she had been overlooked for promotion merely because she was a woman.
Though the petition was dismissed by the Supreme Court, the Justices did note in their ruling that there was merit in her argument that service rules were skewed against women. The court directed the government to overhaul the rules to ensure that there was no gender discrimination.
Post her retirement, Chonira Belliappa Muthamma settled down in Bangalore. She had never married and spent her retirement life with her brother C B Kariappa and his family. She took to writing and her book “Slain by the System – India’s Real Crisis’ was published in 2003.
She also co-authored a book on Kodagu cuisine. When Chonira Belliappa Muthamma died in 2009 at the age of 85, the world lost a woman who had proved her mettle in a world skewed in favor of men.