‘Spy Princess’: Noor Inayat Khan
By Dr Rizwana Rahim
Chicago, IL

Picture a young Indian Muslim woman born in Moscow, brought up mostly in France where she studied music at Paris Conservatory and child psychology at Sorbonne, wrote children’s books (‘Twenty Jataka Tales’ published in 1939; still in print) and worked with Radio Paris till Hitler invaded and occupied France.
Then, picture her escape under fire to England, joining British Royal Air Force’s highly secret Special Operations Executive (SOE), dropped in the German-occupied France to secretly transmit messages back to London, getting caught red-handed by the Gestapo, kept in solitary confinement, taken to Dachau concentration camp, brutally beaten, shot and incinerated in an oven. That was on 14 September 1944, and she was Noor-un-nisa Inayat Khan, a great-great-great-granddaughter of Tipu Sultan. Her last words were ‘Liberte`’ (French for ‘liberty’).
In April, 1949, she was given Britain’s highest civilian award for bravery (George Cross or GC; civilian equivalent of the highest military award, Victoria Cross); France did the same with its Croix de Guerre (CdG). Only two or three other British women have received similar honors, posthumously. London Sunday Express had a big write-up on her on 5 June, 1949. Not long after that, her friend Jean Overton Fuller published her biography, ‘Madeleine’ (1952) -- her SOE code-name. This book was reprinted in 1971 as “Noor-un-nisa Inayat Khan, GC, MBE, CdG” (ISBN: 0214653056).
Noor’s father, Pir Inayat Khan -- the grandson and pupil of Moula Baksh (both of Baroda) -- was a Sufi, mystic and musician who had traveled in the US and Europe during 1910-1926, and developed quite a following. While on a musical recital tour in San Francisco, he met the 23-year-old Ora Ray Baker (originally of Albuquerque, NM), who was a relative of Mary Baker Eddy, founder of Christian Science. They were married in 1913 in Paris, after which she took the name of Sharada Ameena Begum. Noor was born a year later (1-2 January 1914) in Czarist Moscow, while her parents were there at the invitation of Gregory Rasputin, who wanted to see the court of Nicholas II explore Sufism. Before the Revolution, Noor and her parents went to Britain, and from there later to settle in France. Their house ‘Fazal Manzil’ in the Paris suburb Suresnes, is still in the family: Noor’s younger brother, Vilayet Inayat-Khan, lived there till his death at 87 in June 2004. Near its gate, there is a memorial plaque for Noor, and in front of the house, French military still honors her memory on July 14 every year.
Her latest biography, “Spy Princess: The life of Noor Inayat Khan” by Shrabani Basu, a London-based journalist, was recently published in the UK and is to be released in the US in March 2006 (ISBN: 0750939656; Sutton Publishing, UK; 256 pages). Apart from her own research and personal interviews with friends and family of Noor (including with her brother Vilayet, a year before his death) and those who knew her in France, Germany and England (including some SOE officers and even former Nazis), Basu got to see quite a bit of material recently declassified by SOE. Even though a lot is still shrouded in mystery, what has been cobbled together in ‘Spy Princess’ adds some more details to the previously known facts.
Before this, Noor has been a subject of novels and at least one movie, but interesting as they are, facts need to be teased out from fiction in these romanticized biographies: Laurent Joffrin’s “La princesse oubliée” (2002); Shauna Singh Baldwin’s “Tiger Claw” (2004); and Warner Br others movie, “Charlotte Gray” (2001), based on a composite character (a Scottish rather than an Indian woman).
Noor’s life in France was run-of-the-mill, she did what girls of her age normally did. Her father died on his trip to India, when she was 13. Her mother never recovered from the shock, so Noor took charge of her three siblings and ran the household. She completed her studies (music and psychology), became a writer, worked, and fell in love with a Jewish musician, Armand Rivkin. When Hitler invaded France in June 1940, she and her brother Vilayet (despite their Sufi pacifist beliefs) were determined to fight the Nazis, but the French army collapsed which forced her family to escape to England, never to see Armand again.
In England, she and Vilayet “volunteered” to join the British War effort, as Vilayet writes in ‘Memories of My Sister’: she joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) and he, the RAF to be trained as fighter pilot/bomber. Because Noor’s fluency in French was considered an asset, she was trained as a radio operator, prepared to be an underground intelligence-gatherer within occupied France. She wanted to fight for the British Empire but was also passionate about India’s independence.
During the night of 16 June 1943, she and two other women were secretly dropped off in the LeMans area of France, each complete with a new identity (Noor was Anne-Marie Régnier, a woman caring for her sick aunt, separate from her code-name, ‘Madeleine’). She was there to join the physician network (‘Prosper’) led by Francis Suttill, which she did.
Unfortunately, within weeks, the Gestapo were able to break up ‘Prosper, and arrest a number of agents. The Germans were hearing more about ‘Madeleine’ transmissions, but she eluded them and their direction-finding trucks. She had a couple of close shaves, but she talked her way out of it. Because of the growing risk, she was ordered to return and not to transmit anymore but she didn’t want to desert her colleagues, continued to file reports on the run, and stayed on, often living and operating under the Gestapo nose. In fact, she was perhaps the only active radio-operator when the Allied troops landed on Normandy.
Finally, someone (probably Renee Garry, a sister of one of her contacts) reported her to the Gestapo for about a 1,000 Francs. Noor was promptly arrested, red-handed, with all her secret codes, notes, contacts (she was surprisingly lax about security). She was not only non-cooperative as a prisoner, but also tried, but failed, twice to escape. From Paris, she was moved to Germany, first to Karlsruhe prison, then to Pforzheim for solitary confinement and then to Dachau, where one night she was “kicked for hours into a bloody mess,” then taken out, forced to kneel and shot to death along with three other female SOE operators, and thrown in a crematorium oven.
At a memorial service in Paris, General de Gaulle's niece said this about Noor: "Nothing, neither her nationality, nor the traditions of her family, none of these obliged her to take her position in the war. However, she chose it. It is our fight that she chose, that she pursued with an admirable, an invincible courage."
Referring to a plaque on the St. Paul’s Church of Knightsbridge, London, that honored the war dead, including Noor, the Newsweek’s George Will, wrote a touching column about her, ‘The Price of Quiet’ in August, 2001: “Noor's was just one life sacrificed in the last century so that we could live in this one, oblivious of such sacrifices….The [wall plaque] records a small portion of the pain that purchased this quiet.”


Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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