Diva of diplomacy

PLAIN SPEAKING Nirupama Rao is known for her poise and composure

When Colonel P V N Menon’s eldest daughter chose to join the Indian Foreign Service after she topped the civil service exam in 1973, it was indeed a tough decision for the 21-year-old.   Though South Block was no more the impregnable male bastion it had once been, misogynists still held sway in the Indian diplomacy’s nerve-centre in Lutyen’s Delhi. And, a woman from Karnataka’s hilly district of Kodagu was still fighting a lonely battle against the sexist canons — a few written, many more unwritten — in the musty corridors of the classical edifice.

Over three decades have since passed and things have changed in South Block too. Colonel Menon’s daughter is now the chief diplomat of India.

And, she is now giving final shape to a Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) plan to institutionalise the memory of the Kodava woman, who had —in 1949 — become the first IFS officer from the fair sex but had to fight against gender bias all through her career.
 “Ambassador Muthamma was a role-model for all women in the IFS and we remember her courage, her achievements,” says Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao.

Feisty role model

Chonira Belliappa Muthamma, who served as Indian envoy to Hungary, Netherlands and Ghana during her career, had in 1979 moved the Supreme Court after being denied an elevation to the level of secretary in the MEA.

Her petition was dismissed after the MEA told the court that she had been ‘empanelled’. But the apex court’s three-member-bench, headed by Justice V R Krishna Iyer, in a landmark judgment, had asked the Government “to overhaul all service rules to remove the stain of sex discrimination, without waiting for ad hoc inspiration from writ petitions or gender charity.”

The stains of gender bias were indeed there. Even till early 1970s, only unmarried women were allowed to join the IFS and they would have to quit after marriage. The rule was later scrapped.

Muthamma retired in 1982, but only after breaking the South Block’s glass ceiling for the women who joined the IFS after her. Nirupama was the first woman to be appointed  MEA spokesperson in 2001.

Eight years later, she is now the second woman — after Chokila Iyer — to hold the office of Foreign Secretary.

Power women

And she is not alone. As many as 19 Indian Embassies, High Commissions and Consulates are now headed by women, like Meena Shankar in the US and Sujata Singh in Australia. Several divisions in the MEA too are headed by women.
Parbati Sen Vyas has of late returned to the MEA after a deputation to the Ministry of Finance and has taken charge as Special Secretary (Economic Relations).
Vijaya Latha Reddy, who was till recently the Indian envoy to Thailand, is likely to succeed N Ravi as the Secretary (East) in the MEA headquarters after he retires in December.
 Muthamma passed away in Bangalore last month at the age of 85. But the divas of diplomacy had taken over the South Block before she breathed her last. And, leading them from the front is Nirupama.
Fearless and fair
Ask her how she rates the women in her team and the Foreign Secretary waxes eloquent: “The women are now playing very active and substantive roles in Indian diplomacy. They are proving their professional mettle, dedication and high standard of efficiency.”
 She takes immense pride as the women in the IFS scale new heights, serving in some of the most difficult and politically unstable stations abroad, like in the far flung countries deep in Africa and Latin America, as well as in Afghanistan.  
 “Not only are the senior woman diplomats assuming high offices, but many young women are also joining the IFS these days. This is really heartening,” she says.
Merit counts, not gender
Nirupama, herself, never had to experience gender bias in her 36-year career. She was given key assignments in several world capitals, including Washington and Moscow.
 As MEA spokesperson, she handled media on several delicate occasions with admirable poise and composure. She missed a posting in Islamabad, but had her brush with Pakistan in 2001-02, when it was her job to articulate New Delhi’s response to the barbs that were hurtled from across the border. When the then Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf came for the Agra Summit in 2001, he greeted her saying: “I recognise you. I have seen you on TV, briefing journalists.” After the summit ended in a disaster, some Pakistani journalists heckled her when she was on her way to brief Indian media. But she was unflappable. Islamabad later formally expressed regret over the incident.
 
Complete woman
Her passion for theatre, classical music and art are well-known in the diplomatic circle. She still recalls her days as a young IFS probationer at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration in Mussoorie in 1973, when she would often pick up her guitar after dinner and strum: Those were the days my friend/we thought they’d never end/ we’d sing and dance forever and a day/we’d live the life we choose/we’d fight and never lose... Her batchmates too would join her and they would all sing well past midnight.   
 It was in Mussoorie that she met and fell in love with Sudhakar Rao, the young Karnataka cadre IAS probationer. They got married in 1975.    
 She was also the Indian envoy to Peru and Sri Lanka. Her experience of serving in the East Asia Division of the MEA from 1984 to 1992, including as Joint Secretary (East Asia), proved useful when she was appointed Indian Ambassador to China in 2006.
 Her job took her around the world and away from her family. But she took it in her stride. So did her husband, who recently retired as the Chief Secretary of Karnataka, and her sons Nikhilesh and Kartikeya.  
 “When I was in Beijing, my husband was in Bangalore and our children in the US. My younger son used to say that ours is an off-shored family,” she chuckles. Even when they were together earlier, Nirupama could hardly spare time for cooking and the kitchen. Kartikeya sometimes jokingly complained that she could never be a “stay-at-home mom”.
Truly ‘verse’tile
As the Foreign Secretary’s job keeps her extremely  busy, she hardly finds time for her other passion — poetry. Rain Rising, the first collection of her poems, was released in 2004, and she is convinced that she will work on her second collection only after she retires next year. Not only poetry, she hopes to write on foreign policy issues and deliver public lectures in Bangalore, where she plans to settle down.
As the daughter of an army officer, she studied in Malappuram, Bangalore, Pune, Aurangabad, Lucknow and Conoor. But she has since long been in love with the Garden City. A student of Mount Carmel College, she won the John F Kennedy Gold Medal in Humanities in 1970. The then Government of Mysore selected her as a youth delegate to attend a conference in Japan. She was just 19 years old and it was her first visit abroad. She believes that cosmopolitan Bangalore moulded her in many ways. “The city changed my outlook. It  is very cosmopolitan and has a very inclusive environment. I felt I belonged to Bangalore and I continue to belong to Bangalore,” she says.

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