“Well, life has been a baffled vehicle
And baffling. But she fights, and
Has fought, according to her lights and
The lenience of her whirling place.
She fights with semi-folded arms,
Her strong bag, and the stiff
Frost in her face (that challenges “When”and “If”.)
And altogether she does Rather Well.”
(Gwendolyn Brooks: “Weaponed Woman”)
I would define my life as a struggle, too- a struggle to build an identity for myself as an independent, professional woman who wanted to break free of the stereotypes that define feminine lives, especially in societies like ours. My life has been defined substantially by the years I spent in the Foreign Service, as a civil servant and diplomat and it was here that my personality developed, and I pushed at the limits of the definitions of what a woman could achieve. I entered the Service at the age of 22, and was catapulted into a world very different from what I had known as a child and young woman growing up in a sheltered environment. It was essentially a world dominated by men, and patriarchal attitudes prevailed in the Foreign Service as they did in every sphere of life at that time.
I was born into a matrilineal family in Malappuram in north-central Kerala. The green, verdant surroundings of my ancestral house are what I remember from my childhood days for we spent our school holidays there every year. My father was an army officer and lived my early years in various cantonment towns across India. My two sisters and I were given the best education possible by our parents. Life at home was simple and modest.
I read constantly as a child. History fascinated me, particularly modern Indian history. My father nurtured my thirst for knowledge with book after book and with his encouragement to me to read the newspapers and listen to radio broadcasts on current affairs. Equally, I was strongly influenced by my mother. She was a woman of remarkable intelligence, with great dreams for her three daughters. She was the first university graduate in her family, a perfectionist, paying meticulous attention to detail, with a great sense of duty and morality, setting the highest standards particularly for me, her first born. My parents were very forward-looking and wanted their daughters to do as well as the sons of their friends and colleagues.
My dream from the age of 12 was to join the Indian Foreign Service. I took the Civil Service Examination as soon as I was eligible to do so, at the age of 21. I can never forget that day in May 1973, when a telegram arrived at our doorstep, informing me that I had stood first in the All India List of successful Indian Foreign Service and Indian Administrative Service aspirants that year.
I had no regrets about choosing the Foreign Service as a career. Diplomacy is a profession that is full of life’s lessons, how wars are created or prevented, how negotiations succeed or fail, how just as in our personal lives, so too in affairs of state, we should be far-sighted, firm without being overbearing, conscious of our interests, not allowing them to be eroded and determined to defend them, and act with responsibility.
I became a diplomat because of my curiosity about the world around me, about history both ancient and current, and the manner in which I was impacted by the spirit of a newly independent India, and what she stood for. In my youth, I questioned, I was a seeker, I sought answers to so much I saw around me. I did not follow the crowd, preferring to set out on my own, always. I was very clear about what I wanted in life. There was so much to see and learn and so little time in which to accomplish it all. I believed that there was no field of activity or realm of thought that is not within a woman’s reach.
A recent book on women diplomats, called them women of the world. Indeed, the world is the oyster of diplomats and they operate in the oceanic depths of the corridors of power. But women are recent entrants to the field of diplomacy. Diplomacy, the field to which I belong to, was for long the exclusive preserve of men. The very thought that statecraft, the conduct of relations between sovereign countries, could involve women was anathema, even up to a few decades ago. The question asked, for instance, was how can women deal with drunken sailors seeking consular assistance? Of course, the answer given by men, was always, no. Our independence changed that. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru who always said that India has a feminine, not masculine soul, wished to see women in the diplomatic service but even he could not remove such constraints as the marriage bar which compelled women to leave the service once they were married. Many bright careers were extinguished in this manner. The struggles of C.B. Muthamma, the first woman to write the civil service exam and join the Indian Foreign Service, to improve the system yielded extraordinary opportunities for those who have succeeded her. Today the Indian Foreign Service can proudly count in its ranks, a growing number of women Ambassadors and High Commissioners, not to mention all its other women diplomats, who represent India abroad, and also those who handle complex assignments at headquarters. But all this has not been accomplished without the pioneering efforts made by the first generation of our women diplomats to ensure fairness and equality of treatment.
Looking back on my years in diplomacy, I realize that I never for a moment thought of myself as a woman in a man’s world. I just felt I was like the rest, that nothing could stop me from achieving what the men could. There was no glass ceiling in my head. Of course, there were formidable challenges. My marriage to an IAS officer meant that I had two choices before me: if I wanted to lead a conventional, married life I would have to quit my career because there was no possibility of both my husband and I living and working in the same place, except in New Delhi. The other option would be to accept that there would be periods of separation where my husband would be on his various postings in Karnataka (the state cadre to which he was allotted as an IAS officer) while I served in various Indian embassies abroad, as an IFS officer is expected to do. We chose the second option and alternated between such postings, when I served abroad and he served in Karnataka, and postings in Delhi where both of us could be deployed with the Government of India. Of course, this meant that we had to be reconciled to separate establishments, meeting briefly during leave periods, and that our two children had also to adjust to a life where they rarely saw their two parents together. It was a most unconventional marriage and one that defied popular definitions. But survive we did, as a family, and I believe we did because of a sense of mutual commitment, trust and belief in our relationship and in each other.
My constant effort was to integrate and created a viable balance between my professional and personal life. I now look back on those decades with a spirit of thanksgiving for a life that has been full of discovery, the love that I have received from family and friends, and the intellectual richness of a profession where one constantly sharpened and broadened vision and deepened understanding. I am of the view that a professional woman can live a rounded life if she is able to delve into the inner resources of strength and resilience with which she is naturally endowed and if she understands that whatever the circumstances, life will always be bitter-sweet, with its ups and downs whatever you choose to do and also, that you have to delight in the simple gifts of life. I took each day as it came in the spirit of the Vedic hymn:
“Look to this day,
For it is life,
The very life of life,
In its brief course lie all
The realities and verities of existence. ..
Today well lived,
Makes every yesterday
A dream of happiness, and
A vision of hope,
Look well, therefore, to this day.”
My foreign service career threw me in the midst of kings and king-makers, Presidents and Prime Ministers, and also among simple folk. I will never forget the latter, particularly. I remember the days I spent more than three decades ago in Sri Lanka as a young officer addressing the problems of tea estate labourers of Indian origin in the plantations of that country. I still feel the thrill of leading a group of pilgrims on a one- month high altitude trek to Kailash and Manasarowar in Tibet in the summer of 1986. I realize I was contributing to a first draft of history, literally, when I helped prepare for Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to China in 1988. In more recent times, I recall my meetings with the then US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, her warmth and impressive intelligence. Becoming India’s first woman foreign office spokesperson was another high point. It made me a true believer in the importance of public diplomacy. Ambassadorships in Sri Lanka and China followed by my stint as Foreign Secretary demonstrated that we as women can handle the most sensitive and demanding assignments.
I retired from the Service in July 2011 on the completion of my term as Foreign Secretary. I had a post-retirement assignment as Ambassador of India to the United States that I completed in November 2013.
I am convinced that as women, we can leave a lasting impact on public life. It was our women, led by Aruna Roy who secured national acceptance of the Right to Information. Secondly, as women we can be catalysts in building a humane and civilized society. Thirdly, we can help bring a different set of skills in conflict management and problem solving.
In my own experience as India’s Foreign Secretary, I approached my role first as a professional diplomat, and only then, as a woman. Obviously, you have to provide a blend of strategic, directive, team-building and operational leadership in a job of this nature, regardless of gender. I was conscious of this need in what I tried to do and to achieve. I tried to lead by example, to be energetic, to build consensus, to be responsive to colleagues, to be decisive and quick in disposal of pending issues, to be alert and responsive to voices around me, and to pay attention to public diplomacy and communication issues also. The qualities I admire most in people are intellectual honesty and integrity of soul and spirit. The two leaders whose writings and whose lives have impacted me the most are Gandhi and Nehru. Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay is another inspirational figure, because of her independence of spirit and the example she set for our women to break away from the stranglehold of patriarchal tradition.
I am guided by the vision that to ensure good and clean governance, integrity and meritocracy are essential, and that the public interest, the welfare of the Unknown Indian, as I term it, should guide us. The anticipation of change and a willingness to deal with it is another basic requirement. Otherwise, leadership atrophies instead of adapting to change. Openness and transparency are essential. A closed, “cribbed, cabined and confined” mind is an enemy of democracy. We cannot erect walls around ourselves.
From this flows the need to innovate. In today’s environment of constant change, of greater awareness among citizens, and globalization, the ability to adapt and stay innovative is critical. Change is not easy in any big organization. The convenient way out is to adopt ways that have been in place for countless years. So many of our rules and practices owe their genesis to outdated ideas and circumstances and yet changing them is made to be seen as a herculean task. Questioning these shibboleths and ossified ways of approaching a problem or situation in my mind should be an article of faith for every bureaucrat.
Four years ago in August 2010, Pepsico head Indra Nooyi addressing Indian Ambassadors and High Commissioners noted that whether “you look through the lens of diplomacy or the lens of the corporation, the task is the same – to create a world in which we feel safe, settled and happy”. I completely agree with the point that prosperity and security reinforce each other.
That safety and security comes from economic progress, from innovation and enterprise and technological invention. As the job of a diplomat gets redefined, and he or she is no longer locked into lofty chancelleries, but rather engaging with the world of business and entrepreneurship, our roles do not differ very greatly from those performed by those who work in a business or entrepreneurial environment. Public diplomacy has also acquired a very important dimension, in which diplomats have to come out into the amphitheatre of public engagement to explain and enlist public understanding of governmental policies. The corridors of power cannot be self-confining any longer – the world outside will not allow that.
India’s place in the world is self-evident. We are a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-religious, pluralistic society. We have provided space for different identities to flourish. We have never seen diversity as a threat to our nationhood. In the current global order, this is a powerful and inspiring message. For that, India stands out as a totally credible role model.
Can women deal with these challenges I have outlined and come out victorious and smiling? I believe the answer is yes. The fundamental principles you need by your side are belief, determination, and focus. Belief in the values you have imbibed in home, school and university during your early years, determination to achieve what you have set out to do and focus, laser-like, on the goals you have set for yourself. You have to be patient. Don’t look for a harvest on the morning after the sowing is finished. Have faith in your doubts because as the poet once said, it is only then that you can feel “less despair about despair”. Added to this you need the capacity to be an honest judge of yourself, have a strong sense of integrity, of right and wrong, compassion for people less privileged than you are, to be generous, and have a sense of humility, coupled with sincerity of approach and demeanour. Very often in our society, people who have achieved success tend to place a premium on being vainglorious and bumptious. It pays in my view to be generous and large of heart and mind; bumptiousness never pays. Lastly, you must be firm about defending your beliefs and your convictions.
Madeleine Albright once said, “For democracy to thrive without women is impossible. If women are undervalued or underdeveloped then that democracy is imperfect and incomplete.” Decision-making and the prioritization of issues that affect human security have to involve women and men, not just men alone. Key questions of human rights involving half of humanity are involved – whether it is a gang rape in Delhi, or the shooting of a young Malala, wherever there is a struggle by women to seek their human rights, to seek freedom from fear, and their security, physical and psychological. Women need access to information, they need education and vocational skill development, reductions in maternal and child mortality, and access to health care – all of which are core issues for gender rights.
The mechanisms of decision making in the world, and democracies are no exception, are essentially male dominated. Decision-making is a preserve of men the world over. But, democracy, human rights, development and good governance are of concern to women as much as men. Eleanor Roosevelt once said: “Too often the great decisions are originated and given form in bodies made up wholly of men, or so completely dominated by them that whatever of special value women have to offer is shunted aside without expression”. This can change only if more and more women enter and occupy positions in public service.
I come from the world of foreign policy having spent four decades of my life in the practice of diplomacy. As a woman who has been a foreign policy practitioner, I would urge more and more young women of our country to consider careers in the foreign service. We are underrepresented in the foreign service, as in the rest of the bureaucracy. Women need to be more involved in determining the future trajectory of many issues of foreign policy concern for India, whether they are border and territorial questions, neighbourhood policy, trade and connectivity, regional economic cooperation and security, energy security, politico-military issues, and public diplomacy, to name a few. This will help better mainstreaming of gender-related issues also into the working of our foreign policy and bring new perspectives to bear on policy concerning our neighbours, in particular. Women can bring courage and resilience of the feminine sort into the public sphere, a concept of sisterhood that is focused on long-term solutions to problems, the building of common ground, and the creation of cross-border synergies for peace and reconciliation. Preparing our women and skilling them in the art of negotiation and empowering them to build peace is key. I believe, like many of our sisters, that history can and must be pushed in a positive direction. We can do it.
Let me begin with these words from a poem called “Weaponed Woman” by Gwendolyn Brooks, an African American woman poet, whose words represent the radical yet non-violent struggles of women against patriarchal patterns of power, whether familial, political, economic or cultural, the world over: