NOOR INAYAT KHAN was a poet and children’s fiction writer. Her forefathers were from a royal family of India. But she ended up working as a spy for the British in war time Europe in the 1940s. The extraordinary tale of Noor Inayat Khan reads like a fictitious spy whodunit, but it is a real-life drama as the book on her, Spy Princess: The life of Noor Inayat Khan unfolds.
Meticulously researched and presented by London based author Shrabani Basu, Noor Khan’s name was in the list of the brave men and women of the Allied forces who fought and died in World War II. But how did the author get interested in the story? Basu, who was a panelist during the Apeejay Literary Festival in Kolkata recently, said: “I came across a five-line mention about Noor Inayat Khan in an article in The Times of London for the 50th anniversary of World War II which mentioned the contribution of Asians to the war effort. The article said she was a secret agent who was shot in Dachau Concentration Camp and awarded the George Cross, the highest civilian award in the UK. Immediately, I was curious.”
Basu examined the secret service war records in London which had been declassified by the British government in 2003 to find out more about this intriguing woman with Indian roots. “The process of piecing together the story took three years of research with trips to France (where Noor lived and worked as an agent), Germany (where she was executed) and Netherlands (where Noor had family connections) and numerous places in Britain where Noor trained for the secret service,” Basu recalls, but she is happy with the result.
Noor Khan’s was an astounding story indeed. She was the great-great-great-granddaughter of Tipu Sultan, the Tiger of Mysore, who had fought against the British, and was killed in a battle in 1793. Her father, Hazrat Inayat Khan was married to an American. Inayat Khan was a teacher, musician and a progressive Sufi philosopher. For spreading Sufism and giving musical performances, he and his brothers travelled around the world and when he ended up in Moscow, Noor was born on January 1, 1914 when World War I was brewing in Europe. The family moved to France from politically volatile Russia to set up a Sufi centre at a place called Suresnes near Paris, where Noor and her siblings grew up in a house called Fazal Manzil. The family was on the move again, this time to England, just as the German army was at the doorstep of Paris.
It was this experience that transformed Noor and her elder brother Vilayat who vowed to fight against the invaders in whichever way they could. Both decided to join the defence services. Transformation it was for Noor who in her twenties was a gentle soul who was an accomplished musician, writer and broadcaster of children’s stories. But Joan of Arc was her heroine too and she loved stories of chivalry and sacrifice.
She was well aware of her Indian heritage and when she was in London, about the country’s struggle for Independence. During the interview, when she was grilled to check her loyalty, she told the board frankly that as long as the war with Germany was on, she would be loyal to the British government. But after the war she might reconsider her position and could well support India against Britain in the fight for independence. Noor’s fluency in French was noticed by the recruiters and she was put into “shadowy world of Special Operations Executive (SOE),” which collaborated with the French Resistance in counter-intelligence operations. One could hardly associate this petite beauty with the dangerous mission and many in the organisation were doubtful too. But Noor was made of sterner staff and she was determined to excel as an underground radio operator. In June 1943, Noor was dropped into occupied France code-named ‘Madeleine’ with the cover name Jeanne-Marie. She was the first woman radio operator to be sent to France under the Nazi rule. Unfortunately, Noor was detected within a short time after landing. When she came to know that the “circuit” was broken, that is, there was a penetration in her network of contacts, she moved constantly. Her French language skill helping her to merge with the people. For three months she evaded capture, keeping in touch with London and continuing her vital work. In fact, she was soon to be replaced by another agent when she was caught, most probably betrayed by a double agent.
During captivity in Paris, she made two attempts to escape. She was eventually transferred to Germany. She was held in solitary confinement for 10 months in the infamous Pforzheim Prison by the Gestapo, the dreaded German secret service, shackled, half starved, and tortured. But Noor never gave any information to her inquisitors as records show. Having been moved to the Dachau concentration camp, she was abused and kicked near to death by the captors, and then in the early hours of September 13, 1944, she was shot through the head. The last word she uttered before being shot was “libert`E9!” — freedom. She was only 30.
During her research, Basu found that Noor Khan, was better known in France than in Britain or India. Every year, a military band plays outside her childhood home on Bastille Day. She was also awarded the highly honoured Croix de Gurre in France.
Why isn’t there a commemorative memorial of this pioneer woman fighter and hero in England? Basu wondered. Hence, after the publication of the book, she and a group of like-minded people formed the Noor Inayat Khan Memorial Trust, of which she is the chair, to campaign to have it corrected. It was a long process, needing clearances, approvals etc. from different departments, Basu says, but persistence paid off and Noor Inayat Khan’s bust was unveiled in 2012 at Gordon Square near where she lived.
The extraordinary story is soon to be made into a movie. The half-hidden story of the brave Noor Inayat Khan would thus reach a greater audience across the world.
By Arup Dey