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India’s first woman IAS officer who knew how to handle men and guns

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Anna Rajam Malhotra, a 1951-batch officer, was pioneer for women in the bureaucracy. She passed away Monday.

Bengaluru: A steely resolve, straight-forwardness and integrity are the traits that her juniors associate with Anna Rajam Malhotra, post-Independent India’s first woman IAS officer.

Anna, a 1951 Tamil Nadu cadre (then Madras state) officer, passed away in Mumbai Monday. She was 92.

“She was one of the few officers who had the courage to speak her mind and stand up to what is right even in the toughest of circumstances,” recalls former Tamil Nadu chief secretary N. Haribaskar.

“She was the secretary, agriculture, when I was the director in the department. She always backed the right decision, such was her integrity. She would not mince words even with the finance department,” Haribaskar said.

Madhavan Nambiar, another senior retired IAS officer who worked closely with Anna at the Leela Group of Companies, where she was a board member after her retirement, said she showed the way at a time women were not given enough opportunities in the IAS.

“There were hardly any woman officers, not only in the IAS but in other fields; she had to work so much harder,” Nambiar said.

“She had great qualities and was an inspiration even at the age of 85. In our board meetings at the Leela group, she would be the first at the meeting”.

Also read: The IAS has thinned at the top of the bureaucracy under the Modi government

For former woman bureaucrat Santha Sheela Nair, a senior retired IAS officer of the Tamil Nadu cadre, Anna was a pioneer.

“If people wanted to compliment you, they would compare you with her,” says Santha Nair, a 1973-batch officer who was 20 years Anna’s junior in the service.

“When I was preparing for the civil series exam and staying in Chennai, there were always comparisons with her as, before me, she was the only woman to have written the exam,” said Nair.

“From the beginning, I had this huge fascination for Anna George (her maiden name). When I was in service and worked in the districts, people would say that my working style was similar to hers.”

Nair also said that Anna had a reputation of forging and maintaining relationships through the years. “She was a 1951 IAS cadre officer and I belong to the 1973 batch; yet, she always treated me as her equal and always kept in touch with me all her life.”

The gender struggle

In her initial days as an IAS officer in Tamil Nadu, the state was led by Chief Minister C. Rajagopalachari (Rajaji), a man known to have reservations about women in public life.

In an interview that she gave to The Hindu in 2012, Anna recollected that initially Rajaji was opposed to her posting too — she began her career as a sub-collector in Hosur, Tamil Nadu.

“He was convinced that I would be unable to handle the law and order situation,” she said, adding she had argued that she should be given a chance to prove herself.

It was a view shared by her male colleagues, who felt women would be unable to take important administerial decisions or even use their discretionary powers as magistrates.

According to Better India, Anna once rode on horseback to visit a local taluka office in Hosur.

Rajaji later revised his opinion. At a public meeting in the later years, Rajaji had cited her as an example of progressive women, Anna told The Hindu.

It is reported that during her interviews to the media, Anna would talk of the clause that stood out in her appointment order in 1951: “In the event of marriage your service will be terminated”. Luckily for her, the rule changed in a matter of two years.

Also read: IAS officers counter association president’s stand, say being ‘generalist’ is the strength

The officer from Kerala

Anna was born at Niranam village in Kerala’s Thiruvalla district. She completed her Masters in English Literature from Madras University, before joining the service in 1951.

Anna was married to R.N. Malhotra, her batchmate who served as the governor of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) between 1985 and 1990, among other significant postings. They married at the age of 50 and she reportedly told friends that she had married a man with exceptional human qualities and that it “was worth the wait”.

In a long career, Anna worked with seven chief ministers; she also served in the Union home ministry. She assisted late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi during the 1982 Asian Games and also accompanied Indira Gandhi on an eight-state tour.

According to Better India, she was equally adept at rifle shooting as she was with horse-riding.

One of her biggest achievements was overseeing the successful construction and execution of the country’s first computerised port, Nhava Sheva (Jawaharlal Nehru Port) — she was the chairperson of the Nhava Sheva port trust.

Anna was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1990.

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  1. I pray my deepest homage to Ms Anna Rajam Malhotra, who was a revolutionary figure in the periphery of administrative services. May her soul rest in peace!

  2. Who is this Malhotra? Were there no boys in TN ? What was this drama, with what theme ? Was this her tough decision? She was what she was, nothing more. Etc.

  3. A. Malhotra IAS is a great inspiration for women officers. A good tribute to her to follow her footsteps in government service.

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