First Woman Legal Advisor on International Law in South Asia: Neeru Chadha

Dr. Neeru Chadha

Dr. Neeru Chadha assumed charge as the head of the Legal and Treaties Division of the Ministry of External Affairs Government of India on 1st June 2012. This Division is responsible for advising the Government of India on international legal matters. The input of this low key Division is critical to all international transactions of the Government of India whether bilateral or multilateral. Dr. Neeru Chadha as the head of the Division is the highest ranking Legal Advisor to the Government of India on international law. She holds a doctorate in law from University of Delhi and is among a select group of high-ranking women in the Foreign Service.

Dr. Chadha’s appointment is a big achievement; with it, not just India, but South Asia, got its first woman Legal Advisor. What is significant about her appointment is that both within the Ministry and outside it was expected and assumed by all that Dr. Chadha would assume this position, an assumption which evidently stemmed from the competence and the tremendous reputation that Dr. Chadha has acquired with her work since she joined the Division in 1992.
This reputation was further enhanced by her work as Legal Adviser in the Permanent Mission of India to the United Nations in New York from 2006-2009. That this competence and not her gender drove the appointment does seem a move from the Muthumma days when a woman could be appointed to the foreign service only if she undertook not to marry. Dr. Chadha with a 30 year strong marriage joined the Division as a married woman and has undertaken her various travelling responsibilities including the three year stint in New York with a spouse who has, like her, viewed their marriage as a joint enterprise— a relationship which helps them both grow.

Shashi Tharoor, in one of his recent writings, spoke about the qualities of a diplomat as one who can win over without seeming to do so. This goal is reached through logic and reason well oiled with charm and humour. Mr. Tharoor may well be describing Dr. Chadha. Dr. Chadha’s doctoral thesis was described as an eminently readable and convincing argument for gender non discrimination by Professor Dietrich Conrad, one of her thesis examiners and one of the leading international scholars of constitutional law. She has masters in law from both the Universities of Michigan and Delhi but she carries her learning very lightly. Even as large parts of Dr. Chadha’s writings live a cloistered and faceless existence in the various international reports of the Government of India, her published writings on equal work rights for women have been much appreciated. Her thesis, much to the regret of her supervisor and friends, remains unpublished as her multifarious official responsibilities have always prevailed over personal ambition for this officer.

Dr. Chadha in her doctoral thesis had mounted a strong argument for equality of opportunity between men and women. It was her view that once the legal and cultural barriers to the participation of women were lifted women will come into their own. Laws and policies which prevented such participation stemmed from prejudicial understanding and constituted deprivation and discrimination. Affirmative action may be required in the short term but paternalism would only dwarf and suppress. She advocated for a level playing field and has demonstrated with her own life and career what a woman can do when she gets that fair chance at home and work.

For Neeru Chadha evidently her achievements are achievements of a competent and hardworking human being. Having not felt the disadvantage of her gender at home and abroad she holds that the key to success lies in untiring perseverance. She sees herself as a model of what can be achieved with sincerity and hard work. Without disagreeing with her credo, it is important to add that Neeru Chadha shows what women can do when provided equality of opportunity and a fair chance. Once structural inequality is addressed the achievement is personal and Dr. Chadha’s special achievement is that she has totally neutralized the prejudicial parameter of her gender with her competence; and most significantly she has obtained this neutralization not just for herself but for all around her. Dr. Chadha’s appointment which was not coloured either by the prejudice of gender or by the desire to do affirmative action may well indicate that the level playing field is starting to arrive at least in some places for women. It is hoped that other hard working, passionate, competent women will follow on the trail blazed by Dr. Chadha.
Amita Dhanda is a Professor of Law at the National Academy of Legal Studies and Research (NALSAR), in Hyderabad. She studied with Neeru Chadha at University of Delhi. She can be reached at amitadhanda@gmail.com.

Editors’ note: Noted author Shashi Tharoor, Minister of State for Human Resource Development and Member of Parliament for Thiruvanathapuram, is a former Under Secretary General of the United Nations.
C. B. Muthamma was the first woman to join the Indian Foreign Service, in 1949. Having been denied promotion to an ambassadorship, she brought suit against the government on the ground of gender discrimination. She also challenged as discriminatory the Foreign Service’s rules against married women. The Supreme Court of India, in C.B. Muthumma v. Union of India & Ors. [1979 AIR 1868], directed the government to “overhaul all service rules to remove the stains of sex discrimination, without waiting for ad-hoc inspiration from writ petitions…” The Court dismissed the petition on grounds of mootness as the Ministry of External Affairs had promoted Ms. Muthumma to India’s Ambassador to the Hague during the pendency of the case.

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