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From steely diplomacy to concerts, the beauty of Nirupama Menon Rao

In this edition of #IndiaPositive, we decode India's former Foreign Secretary, Nirupama Menon Rao

By Radha Mishra
Updated on :

India’s first woman spokesperson in the Ministry of External Affairs, the first woman high commissioner from India to Sri Lanka, and the first Indian woman ambassador to China – in the world of diplomacy, Nirupama Menon Rao has successfully made a mark. In her four-decade-long career, she served as India’s Foreign Secretary from 2009-2011, the highest office for any diplomat in the country and handled many noteworthy assignments.

Though the journey may seem quite tough, for Nirupama, it was a “chequered and eventful ride”.

It was when Nirupama was 11 that the intriguing stories of diplomacy narrated by one of her uncles who had served in Japan during the World War II inspired her to consider a similar career.  She fondly reminiscences, “He would talk to me about his experiences in Japan and I was very fascinated”.

“The letters I.F.S. seemed to be three golden letters – and I aspired very much to be a part of India’s diplomatic service, even without realising at that tender age, what being a diplomat entailed. The world of diplomacy seemed to have a mystique, an aura, a certain distinctiveness to me – which was quite different and unique,” she says.

Nirupama has broken the glass ceiling remarkably and she gives the credit to her parents for the upbringing she had. She reflects, “Our parents were most emancipated and progressive and they encouraged each of us to study hard and well, to become professional career women. They wanted us to be self-confident women who could take on the world if the need arose! This confidence stayed with me throughout my career and I never allowed myself to be hindered by perceptions of gender discrimination.”

As a child, Nirupama was a bookworm who spent all her childhood reading but not many know that she was also a history buff with an almost eidetic memory when it came to dates. Wondering aloud, she says, “For a brief period, when I was six or seven, I could say exactly on which day a particular date in history fell. It was a gift and to this day, I do not know how I acquired this ability which faded away by the time I was eight or nine. But my love of history and an ability to remember dates and historical events flowed from this early phase.”

Even to this day, her penchant for reading continues. She regularly dives into the world of fiction, history, memoirs, articles in magazines and newspapers. Taking it a step further, she also writes Op-eds for numerous newspapers on various topics of current relevance in foreign policy and in the field of culture.  She is also currently writing a book on India’s relationship with China.

Also read: Ashish Chauhan: The man with the Midas touch

Interestingly, Nirupama hasn’t shied away from new age social media platforms unlike many of her peers, and is very active, particularly on Twitter where she has over 1.2 million followers today with whom she shares her thoughts and opinions frequently.

The former Foreign Secretary strongly feels that India has unique advantages compared to other nations stemming from its economic potential, its democratic traditions, and the vibrancy and talent of its young population.

But, in her opinion, terrorism, particularly cross-border terrorism, the transfer of the best in technology, and investment for development, particularly infrastructure developments, and energy security, are primary concerns for India on the global platform.

The former Ambassador to the United  States believes that India’s relations with the US have grown tremendously in the last decade. She terms Prime Minister Modi’s recent visit to Washington “a successful visit where he had very positive meetings with President Trump which should augur well for the future”.

When it comes to Indo-Pakistan relationship, the former Foreign Secretary isn’t optimistic. Without mincing her words, she says, “The world has increasingly come to recognise and condemn Pakistan’s harbouring of terrorist groups and the havoc and instability that it generates in our region through such support. I do not see our relations with Pakistan improving until they are able to bring these terrorist elements to justice and control, prevent and eliminate their influence and activities completely.”

Also read: Tathagata Satpathy: The parliamentarian we deserve, but are not ready for!

Beneath the tough shell of the diplomat lies Nirupama, the lover of art and heritage, who is “keen to see greater consciousness within the country to protect, preserve and cherish our wonderful monuments and ancient artistic traditions”. She also sings when she has the time and has performed in a series of concerts called “Beyond Boundaries” with one of her friends from Sri Lanka.  Talking about the upcoming concert, she excitedly says, “the next one is in New Delhi in December” and also adds, that a CD of her written songs is due for release later this year.


#IndiaPositive is an exclusive series that celebrates achievements and groundbreaking disruptions to status quo caused by prominent change agents.