Recently Kiran Bedi, the country’s first woman police officer, sought voluntary retirement after being in the eye of a storm following her allegations of gender discrimination in the police force. Bedi, who had transformed Tihar jail from filthy dungeons to a clean and livable place and has had an outstanding career, was superseded for the post of Delhi’s police commissioner. Because she was a woman.
Women in civil service have come up against sexism time and again. Madhu Bhaduri, who joined the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) in 1968, recalls how women IFS officers launched their first protest against blatant gender discrimination in this elite branch of service, which was at that time wrapped up in layers of discriminatory codes.
Here is an account of how it all started…
The year was 1979. Madhu Bhaduri was one of the 40-odd women in the Indian Foreign Service (IFS).
Rarely then did women enter this overwhelmingly male service. The Indian Police Service (IPS) of course topped the list of male bastions in the civil services with no woman officer at all.
Sexism was raging in its full glory. It was in those times, when women were gingerly finding a foothold in a none-too-women-friendly institution, that Bhaduri, along with other women officers, received a letter from Jagat Mehta, then Foreign Secretary in the external affairs ministry. His blatantly sexist letter set the women officers on a path of collision with the authorities.
Jagat Mehta, in a three-page-long letter virtually asked the women officers to choose between their ‘careers’ and their ‘families’. Atal Bihari Vajpayee was then the foreign minister. “The letter basically told the women that they should not seek to be posted in stations where their husbands are posted if they wanted to continue in the service. The Foreign Secretary could have sent the same letter to the husband officers who were equally interested in postings with their officer wives, but this he didn’t do because the problem was seen to be ‘the women’ in the service,” says Bhaduri, who retired three years ago, after a 35-year career in Foreign Service.
Mehta adopted a thinly veiled threatening tone in his letter. He wrote, “Foreign Minister (read Atal Bihari Vajpayee) has, therefore, asked me to warn you that in future we should be obliged to adhere more strictly, regardless of sex, to the normal patterns of postings and preferential accommodation should not be presumed,” the letter stated.
“Let me clarify that the intention is not to insist on resignations from the Service, when lady members get married. It is simply that lady members should be prepared to be sent to any country like any other officer,” the letter cautioned.
It was a veiled threat and the 40-odd women officers, lashed back. Bhaduri recalls with a touch of pride. “Shocked by the letter we women officers got together. We wrote a reply and met Jagat Mehta. Told him the letter was discriminating against women officers.” At first Mehta tried to shrug off the protests. Soon he realised the women, who have already crossed a threshold in gender discrimination by entering the Foreign Service, were no shrinking violets. “We told him we will take the matter to court,” Bhaduri says.
The reply of the women officers to Mehta’s letter said, among other things, “Women officers have been advised not to make ‘direct and even more important, indirect pleas’ for preferential postings. Underlying this is the implication that women officers alone are in the habit of making pleas for preferential postings…Such a statement is not only discriminatory; it is untrue.”
Bhaduri recalls the commotion caused by Mehta’s letter. The Foreign Service Association, which was represented by men only, offered to take up the matter regarding the letter with the Foreign Secretary.
Put differently, the male colleagues believed they would be able to present our views more cogently. “Allow us to speak, they told us,” says Bhaduri. “We told them we were perfectly capable of representing our own case.”
The ministry quietly withdrew the discriminatory letter. A victory indeed. Imagine a clutch of women throwing the gauntlet at the mighty male establishment of the Foreign Service. “Those days we also had to get permission from the ministry to get married. This discriminatory practice was also scrapped after protest and an indictment from the Court.”
The external affairs ministry did not promote CB Muthamma, Bhaduri’s senior colleague, to the post of foreign secretary. Muthama, supported by her women colleagues took the government to Court. Justice Krishna Iyer’s judgment of her case described the Foreign Service as ‘misogynist.’
“We do wish to impress upon the government the need to overhaul all Service Rules to remove the stain of (gender) discrimination,” said Iyer in his judgment.
He cited Rule 8 (2) of the Indian Foreign Service (Conduct and Discipline) Rules to make his point. The rule states that, “a woman member of the service shall obtain the permission of the government in writing before her marriage is solemnised. Any time after the marriage, a woman member of the Service may be required to resign from Service, if the government is satisfied that her family and domestic commitments are likely to come in the way of due and efficient discharge of her duties as a member of the Service.” Justice Iyer’s judgment in the Muthamma case is a strong indictment of the Foreign Service.
It is now not mandatory for women officers in the IFS to seek government permission for getting married thanks to CB Muthamma and Justice Iyer.
Bhaduri has an interesting take on ‘gender discrimination’ – a little different from the usual arguments. “I would not say there is discrimination based on gender. I would rather say there is discrimination against women, and much more discrimination against those women who speak up, who take an independent stand,” says Bhaduri. She clarifies her argument saying women who do not challenge authority, who manipulate, or network their way through, can circumvent problems. “An independent mind is resented and feared. Especially if it happens to be a woman,” says Bhaduri.
She stresses that not all women officers are ready to join issue with the authorities on gender issues even when there is good reason to do so. “When we received the discriminatory letter from the then foreign Secretary, we approached some IAS women colleagues to join us. One of them said she would not like to do so because she has had postings of her choice along with her husband and would prefer to play it safe,” narrates Bhaduri. It all goes to shore up Bhaduri’s basic thesis that in a male dominated world especially within the government, women are generally on the defensive. Those few who have the guts to speak up, are the ones who are especially marked to be at the receiving end. Kiran Bedi’s is a case in point.
There are now more women in traditional male preserves, even though the increase is so marginal as to leave you cold. But the women who are now coming in are far less radical than the women who joined the services in the 1970s. When Kiran Bedi joined the Indian Police Service (IPS) as its first women officer, she went against the tide. She was a non-conformist who cleared the path now trod by others like her. The new generation of women however, are more malleable towards authority and less inclined to speak up in the face of discrimination.
After joining the service in 1968, Bhaduri served in many places. She was India’s Consul General in Hamburg (1992), Ambassador to Belarus and Lithuania (1996) and Portugal (2000). After her career in the bureaucracy drew to a close she became an activist for the implementation of the Right to Information Act (RTI). Who better than a former top-level bureaucrat to campaign for an Act that can lift the veil of secrecy shrouding the government. She campaigned along with her former batch mate Aruna Roy and many others around the country for transparency and sat on strike at Jantar Mantar when the government threatened to amend the RTI Act to disallow file notings to come in public view.
Unlike many bureaucrats who miss the trappings of power after retirement, Bhaduri is enjoying herself since she retired in 2003 – she has been immersed in RTI activist work; travelling, meeting people.
“There is no alternative to transparency. And it is the civil society which has to ensure that transparency should prevail in government functioning,” says Bhaduri. She has seen the bureaucracy from within and speaks with conviction.
As a former bureaucrat she has a keen eye for spotting the rot.