Meet Anna Rajam Malhotra: The woman who fought gender bias to become India’s first female IAS Officer

While Anna’s journey brought new challenges every day and she had to fight the gender prejudices regularly, it was also rewarding!

We all know the inspiring story of India’s first female IPS officer Kiran Bedi but how many of us exactly know about India’s first woman IAS officer? At a time when most Indian women’s roles were mainly confined to their homes and kitchens, Anna Rajam Malhotra fought gender bias and societal norms to become India’s first female IAS officer. Not just that, Anna was also the first woman to hold a secretarial post in the central government. Now that’s some achievement, isn’t it? But how did Anna do it? How did she convince everyone around her for such a big step?

Anna’s story began in in Niranam village, Kerala where she was born on July 17, 1927 in the household of Malayalam author Pailo Paul. Little did her parents, O. A. George and Anna Paul, then knew that their daughter was born to write her own destiny. Anna moved to Calicut where she completed her school education and did her Bachelors from Calicut’s Malabar Christian College, after which she moved to Madras (now Chennai) to complete her Masters in English Literature from Madras University.

Anna first decided to appear in the civil services examination in 1950. When she qualified for the interview round and appeared for it in 1951, she had no clue that she was the first woman to do so! However, the interview panel asked, which comprised of four ICS officers and was headed by R.N. Banerjee, the then Chairman of UPSC, asked Anna to join the Foreign Service and Central Services rather than the Indian Administrative Service. The reason? Well, because these gentlemen believed that those posts were more “suitable for women” as compared to the post of an IAS.

But Anna did not come all this way to lose. Rather than getting discouraged, she argued her case, chose Madras cadre and picked up her rank. Though her appointment order strictly stated that “In the event of marriage your service will be terminated”, the rules were changed after a couple of years.

The first Chief Minister whom Anna worked under was C. Rajagopalachari, who being old-fashioned, was hell bent against women entering public service. Though Anna fought all the way to the cadre, she couldn’t convince Rajagopalchari to post her in the field as he was strongly convinced that she won’t be able to handle law and order situations. Thanks to his thinking,  Anna was offered a post in the Secretariat rather than serving as a district sub-collector. However, Anna, who was trained in horse riding, rifle and revolver shooting and in using magisterial powers, refused to accept that she was lesser than her male counterparts in any aspect.

And thus began her second fight to prove herself. Anna argued that she was no less than men or anyone when it came to handling the law or order situations, if and when they arise. Eventually, Rajagopachari gave in to her arguments and she was posted as sub-collector in the Hosur district. She was the first woman to do so! However, the gender discrimination was not an issue that would easily go away.

During one such incident that Anna recalls, when she visited a village in the taluk on horseback as the sub-collector, she was informed that the village women wanted to see her. Thinking that it might be some issue that they wanted to talk about, Anna visited them. But to her utter surprise, all those women did was walked around Anna, looking at her like they would look at a strange creature. And then came the final blow, A very disappointed old lady said, ‘she looks just like one of us.’ It was then that Anna came to terms with the fact that people expected the “woman officer” to be different from them.

Anna Rajam Malhotra

Anna Rajam Malhotra in her younger days

Anna served under seven chief ministers in her tenure. She worked closely with Rajiv Gandhi in the Asiad project in 1982. She also worked with Indira Gandhi for a small time. She accompanied Ms. Gandhi on an eight-state tour as she had been given the responsibility of agricultural inputs and had to provide the then PM the information about the declining food production. Anna went to the tour with a fractured ankle. Such was her commitment towards her duty!

On the personal front, Anna married her colleague and former batchmate R. N. Malhotra in 1985. Malhotra later became the RBI governor and had earlier served as the Finance Secretary when Indira Gandhi was Prime Minister. He was posted as India’s Executive Director at the International Monetary Fund in Washington when they got married. It was when Malhotra took up the post of Governor of the Reserve Bank of India that Anna got her most difficult and significant assignment. She was assigned to build India’s first computerised container port, Nhava Sheva, in Mumbai.

It was not an easy task for Anna, who had not handled such a project before and had to start from scratch. marshy. Every day, Anna would leave early from her residence in South Bombay to set out for salt pan land, Nhava Sheva. The then-Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi visited Nhava Sheva a few times during its construction and was thoroughly impressed with Anna’s work! The greenfield port of Nhava Sheva started in May 1989 and Anna was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1990.

However, despite all her pioneering achievements, Anna claims that her best moments as a bureaucrat were those spent with the villagers in rural India.

Anna was not just a hard-working and stubbornly honest lady who lived a life that only a handful of women of her time lived, she is also a figure who broke gender and social barriers for serving the nation.

We salute you, ma’am!