London (Rahnuma) Pirzadi Noor Inayat Khan was a Princess from the royal House of Tipu Sultan, the famous ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore, having been born into royalty in India, a Muslim, whose father was a Sufi preacher famously known as Hazrat Inayat Khan, who was the founder of the Sufi Order in the West in 1914 (London) and teacher of Universal Sufism. He initially came to the West as a Northern Indian classical musician, having received the honorific title “Tansen” from the Nizam of Hyderabad.
Noor was born on New Year’s Day 1914 in Moscow, Russia. In 1920 her family moved to London the same year Khan was born, settling in Suresnes near Paris, in a house that was a gift from a benefactor of the Sufi movement. After the death of her father in 1927, Noor took on the responsibility for her grief-stricken mother and her younger siblings.
As a young girl, she was described as quiet, shy, sensitive, and dreamy. She studied child psychology at the Sorbonne and music at the Paris Conservatory under Nadia Boulanger, composing for harp and piano. She began a career writing poetry and children’s stories, and became a regular contributor to children’s magazines and French radio. In 1939, her book, Twenty Jataka Tales, inspired by the Jataka tales of the Buddhist tradition, was published in London.
After the outbreak of the Second World War, when France was overrun by German troops, the family fled to Bordeaux and, from there by sea, to England, landing in Falmouth, Cornwall, on 22 June 1940.
Despite her own pacifist leanings, Noor to fight for the Allies, at least partially in hopes that the heroism of a few Indian fighters might help improve British-Indian relations. Khan joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and was trained as a radio operator.
Noor trained to be a wireless operator in occupied territory, the first woman to be deployed in this capacity. Noor was selected for a dangerous mission, to be a wireless operator in occupied France, transmitting messages and serving as a connection between agents on the ground and the base in London. Operators could not stay in one location for long, due to the likelihood of being discovered, but moving was also a risky proposition due to the bulky, easily noticed radio equipment. By the time Khan was assigned this mission, operators in this job were considered lucky to survive two months before being captured.
In June 1943, Noor, along with a few other agents, arrived in France. However, within weeks, the Paris circuit was discovered and almost all her fellow agents were swept up by the Nazi Army, making Khan the only remaining operator in the region. She was offered the option to be pulled from the field but insisted on staying and completing her mission.
For the next four months, Noor went on the run. Using every technique possible, from changing her looks to changing her location and more, she evaded the Nazis at every turn. Meanwhile, she determinedly continued doing the job she was sent to do. In essence, Noor was handling all the spy radio traffic that would normally be handled by a full team.
Her work had become crucial to the war effort, helping airmen escape and allowing important deliveries to come in.“Her transmissions became the only link between the agents around the Paris area and London,” Ms. Basu wrote in her biography “Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan.”
Unfortunately, Noor was discovered when someone betrayed her to the Nazis. Noor was arrested and imprisoned in October 1943. Eventually, in 1944, Khan was transferred to Dachau, the concentration camp. She was executed on September 13, 1944. Though she was tortured and interrogated, she revealed nothing, not even her real name. Her last word as she was shot was “Liberte!” (Freedom). She was only 30.
Once During her interview for a commission in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF), Noor bluntly told her interrogators that after the war, she would devote her life to the cause of Indian independence from colonial rule. She said this despite knowing that saying this could result in her not getting the job, or worse, being labeled treasonous!
Posthumously, Noor was awarded multiple honors for her work and her bravery. In 2012 a Memorial bust of Noor Inayat Khan was unveiled by HRH The Princess Anne Elizabeth Alice Louise in Gordon Square Gardens, London, this was the first memorial in Britain to be of a Muslim or an Asian woman. Her legacy lives on as a groundbreaking heroine and as a spy who refused to abandon her post, even in the face of unprecedented demand and danger.
Noor, whose name was in the news in Britain recently as a proposed new face of the £50 note, In recognition of her bravery and service, she was awarded the George Cross by Britain and the Croix de Guerre, with gold star, by France. Noor is also confirmed to be the first Indian-origin woman to be honored with a Blue Plaque at her former London home. Major Indian figures to be honored with Blue Plaques in London include Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and B R Ambedkar, who spent time in the city during the Indian national movement against Britain’s colonial rule. In 2006, President Pranab Mukherjee, the then defense minister, visited Noor’s family house outside Paris and described her bravery and sacrifice as “inspirational”.