Legal History Moment: The Case of the Diligent Diplomat

C.B Muthamma passed away today. She was the first woman to have joined the Indian civil service in 1949. She became a part of Indian legal history when she challenged the Foreign Service Rules which required women members to give an undertaking that if they were to get married, they would resign from the service. Even if she were given permission to marry, she could be required to resign any time after marriage if the Government is satisfied that her family and domestic commitments will hamper her duties as a member of the service

Ms Muthamma had not married, yet she found herself superseded on several occasions by those junior to her. In her writ petition she detailed systemic discrimination against women by the Union Public Services.

“Even at the very threshold when the petitioner qualified for the Union Public Services at the time of her interview, the Chairman of the U.P.S.C. tried to persuade (dissuade) the petitioner from joining the Foreign Service. On subsequent occasion he personally informed the Petitioner that he had used his influence as Chairman to give minimum marks in the viva. As the time of entry into the Foreign Service, the petitioner had also to give an undertaking that if she were to get married she would resign from the service.”

Interestingly enough these rules had remained in force till 1979, prompting the court to remark “that the writ petition, bespeaks a story which makes one wonder whether Articles 14 and 16 belong to myth or reality.”

Muthamma’s writ petition was not just an individual case but was prompted by decisions taken by the Janata Government that affected a large number of women diplomats. As Monobina Gupta , recounts one of the first instances where the 40 odd female IFS officers mobilized against directions sent to female diplomats by the Janata government in 1979.

Justice Krishna Iyer found the government rules misogynistic and held that “If the family and domestic
commitments of a woman member of the service is likely to come in the way of efficient discharge of duties, a similar situation may well arise in the case of a male member … If a married man has a right, a married woman, other things being equal, stands on no worse footing. Freedom is indivisible, so is justice.”

C.B Muthamma went on to serve as Ambassador to the Netherlands, Hungary and Ghana. India today has its second female Foreign Secretary.

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