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Die-hard spirit

C.B. Muthamma has not let her age temper her agitation over today's Indian democracy being run by people `who have nothing to do with it'


SOMEBODY FROM Nehru's time is best to ask what he or she thinks about former Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee. That's because there has been talk in recent times that Vajpayee is a statesman — like Nehru. The first woman IFS officer India saw in 1949, C.B. Muthamma, at her age, is unsparing: "Nehru had courage and conviction. The last thing you would attribute to Vajpayee is both. Nehru may have been an idealist, may not have had his feet on the ground. But Vajpayee is a man who says one thing today and another tomorrow. There was a month of holocaust in Gujarat. He called for Raj Dharma. But what did he do at Goa? He denounced a community. There is simply no comparison between Nehru and Vajpayee. Period." These are strong views from a lady who is growing in years and certainly in conviction. It is not surprising to meet intellectuals of those times agitated over the state of politics in India today. The Sixties and the Seventies did that to them.

Ms. Muthamma was the first woman to clear the All-India Civil Services Examination. She chose to work in the Indian Foreign Service and did so for over three decades with a distinguished record. Ironic that in Nehru's time, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) got it wrong when it asked her to sign a document that she would not enter wedlock if she wished to continue in Foreign Service. "The most absurd regulation I've come across."

She was also denied promotion on grounds of gender and refused permission to get a close relative to accompany her on work abroad. She describes her "utterly inane battles" with the official establishment: "When the rule permitted a single Head of Mission to take a close female relative at government expense as a hostess, I was refused permission to take my mother, since the rules referred to a He, not a She!"


It was when she threatened to go to court that the ministry panicked and offered her promotion. She asked them why a promotion only when she approached court. She asked the ministry why merit was not a consideration and how the ministry assessed merit. All this because the Foreign Office denied her postings with justifications such as "she might have to go to the airport in the middle of the night". "I was pushing for transparency. I was in public service, not doing a private job," she says.

In 1979-80, she moved the Supreme Court because the MEA refused to award her the rank of Secretary. The petition resulted in a landmark judgement by V.R. Krishna Iyer on ``institutionalised discrimination'' in the bureaucracy. "From the time I joined in 1950, every step of the way, I faced stiff resistance... Nobody wanted me, whether it was my first posting in Paris or later, because they were afraid of being stuck with a woman officer... "The regulations were eliminated in the years to come. Chokila Iyer, who was Foreign Secretary recently, acknowledged that Ms. Muthamma's fight went a long way in securing fair treatment of women in Foreign Service.

Ms. Muthamma believes Indians are a peaceable, intelligent, and hardworking people being divided by those who have "nothing to do with the country".

"Who is that hopeless fellow whose name I can't even remember?" It turns out to be a high-profile rabble-rouser.

What about him and the party that eulogises such politics? "Anyone having to anything with such politics and the party is not civilised," she retorts. What then is the state of democracy? "The BJP got less than 25 per cent of the votes in the previous election. What can a party that does not have mandate from even half the people of the country have anything to with it? A minority casts votes and they rule. On top of it, they dislike everyone, including Hindus who do not toe their line."

But we have a fairly working electoral system in place, you reason. The answer comes quickly: "But it is flawed. You do not even get 50 per cent of the vote and you rule. What kind of a system is that?"

She would like a more representative electoral system and devolution of power — local self-governance. "The Constitution is good, but the political system is bad. Why do you think a country with such vast resources is not doing well?"

Her book, Slain By The System: India's Real Crisis, is a critique of India's democracy and politics, while appreciative of the document that built the democracy — the Constitution, one of the best in the world.


On India's recent foreign policy initiatives, the Look-East policy, the thaw with Pakistan, a certain withdrawn role in Sri Lanka, she is positive that the perception of India as a bully in South Asia could temper and the overtures could be the first portents of an amicable SAARC relationship. "India needs to be a friend and needs to have friends. There is no future in conflict/war. The US is learning that it is in a mess in Iraq... "

Ms. Muthamma's suggests a long-term policy on development and foreign relations that does not always respond to a crisis. She sees India's strength "in intangibles", not merely in the tangible military.

The country, she hopes, will give birth, not to people who divide, but to people who will live the ideals of democracy, devolution, and diversity — her idea of a beautiful India.

She recalls her friend's (an Englishman) remark on India: "Everybody tells you that India is poor, but nobody tells you India is beautiful."

PRASHANTH G.N.

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