Precious legacy

Published : Sep 23, 2011 00:00 IST

Noor Inayat Khan in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force uniform. She joined the WAAF in 1940, soon after her arrival in the U.K. from France. - PHOTOGRAPHS: COURTESY NOOR INAYAT MEMORIAL TRUST

Noor Inayat Khan in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force uniform. She joined the WAAF in 1940, soon after her arrival in the U.K. from France. - PHOTOGRAPHS: COURTESY NOOR INAYAT MEMORIAL TRUST

A planned memorial in London for the Indian origin spy Noor Inayat Khan bodes well for the U.K.'s multicultural ethos.

IF things go according to plan, Gordon Square, in London's borough of Camden, will have a memorial to Noor Inayat Khan by 2012. Noor was a young woman of Indian origin in the British secret service who was killed, while being held by the Germans, during the Second World War. Interest in her life and her invaluable work during the War was revived after the publication of Shrabani Basu's biography, Spy Princess, in 2006.

Noor was the daughter of an Indian Sufi and an American mother. She was born in Russia, spent time in England and France and died at the hands of the Germans after a short but important role in the Second World War. Fluent in several European languages, she was also conversant in Urdu. Growing up under the influence of both Eastern and Western philosophies and cultures, Noor was a global citizen' even before the phrase acquired the commonality and meaning that it has now. It is important that her life story is known the world over, especially in Britain and in India, to nourish our shared histories.

Spy Princess is an accurate description of Noor. She was a spy with the British Special Operations Executive (SOE). Shrabani Basu calls her a princess because her family line goes back to Tipu Sultan, the great 18th century warrior of Mysore. Ironically, while Tipu fought against the British and is remembered as an early Indian nationalist, a few generations down the line his great-great-granddaughter waged a covert war for the British.

Her bravery was posthumously recognised in 1949 with the George Cross, a rare honour and the highest civil decoration in Britain, the first for an Asian woman. The prestigious decoration is reserved for acts of great gallantry in non-combat roles. Only four awards have been made to women in its history, three of them for actions during the Second World War. Violette Szabo was a fellow recipient of the George Cross. She was also a secret agent with the SOE, and a memorial in London commemorates her service.

The short and eventful life of this strong woman and her Indian connection begins with her father, Hazrat Inayat Khan (whose mother was a granddaughter of Tipu). Khan was a prominent itinerant Sufi and musician in the early 20th century. Even by the standards of Sufism, his faith was extremely catholic. His journeys took him to lands far away from his home in Baroda (Vadodara) as he established international centres of Sufism. Noor, born in 1914 in Moscow, was his first child. Later, the family moved to England and eventually to Paris. Growing up in a spiritually pantheist household steeped in universal Sufism, she developed into a sensitive, charming, beautiful and talented young woman who wrote stories for children.

The start of the Second World War saw Noor being drawn to the Allied war effort along with her siblings. As the Germans advanced on France, in Britain, across the English Channel, she was recruited to the SOE. Spearheading most of the secret activities of the British war effort, the SOE was the hub from where spies were sent to German-occupied territories. Noor headed to France as she could easily pass for a French person after a few months of training, even though her field reports said that she was not ready. After she was airdropped in France, she worked hard at learning to live the harried life of a spy, breaking down occasionally. Yet, she refused to stop transmitting radio messages until her entire circuit of spies collapsed and it became impossible for her to continue with her work.

A few days before her impending departure from Paris, the dreaded Gestapo sniffed her down after she was betrayed by someone within her network. She fought like a tigress, writes Shrabani Basu, before allowing herself to be arrested on September 13, 1943. After almost a year of imprisonment, which included bouts of solitary confinement and torture, she was shot dead by the Germans in Dachau, a notorious concentration camp of the Third Reich. The only word she uttered before she was shot was libert (liberty). In hindsight, it looked like Noor's life could have been saved if her handlers in London had been more alert and careful.

Shrabani Basu's book, from where this tale is sourced, is a good account of the short but rich story of Noor's life. She writes that Noor was an Indian Muslim who sacrificed her life protecting Jews as the Germans bulldozed their way across Europe. While many soldiers in the British war effort on several fronts were Muslim, almost all of them came from colonial armies like the British Indian Army. Noor was closer to the heart of the war effort than many others as she was a secret agent supplying crucial information to the Allied forces in their battle against the Germans. Her actions were in some way helping save Jewish lives, and the novelty of that relationship must be cherished as relations between Israel and the global Muslim community have soured since that time.

It can be debated whether Noor was actually a Muslim. The question can only have nuanced answers with no certainties. Her father, from whom Noor derived a great part of her spiritual worldview, was an internationally respected Sufi. But his writings clearly show that he considered Islam to be one among many religions in the path to the universal God. He was an initiate in the Chistiya order of Sufism and had close ties with India, where he chose to come back when he had a premonition of his death, leaving his family in Paris. But his links with Islam were tenuous and his religion was concerned more with an inner cleansing and the science of the soul.

He described himself as a Sufi and it is only by deductive reasoning that he becomes a Muslim. The reasoning would be: All Sufis are Muslim, hence Khan was also a Muslim. Noor being Khan's daughter, therefore, automatically becomes a Muslim. The legacy of Khan's Sufism lived on with his son, Vilayat Khan, who died in 2004, and grandson, Zia Khan, who currently leads the Sufi Order International.

Shrabani Basu acknowledges that Noor could not be called a practising Muslim. In an e-mail interview with Frontline, she wrote: Noor was not a practising Muslim in the strictest sense of the term, but the influence was definitely that of a liberal Indian Sufi upbringing. She was called Pirzadi, daughter of the Pir.

The author runs a small risk of antagonising some Muslims if she keeps harping on Noor's Muslim identity. Conservative Muslims often interpret Islamic injunctions on idolatry to extend to statues and figurative paintings as well. That is one of the reasons why, historically, Islamic art is mainly known for its ornamental work and its fine calligraphy. Even today, there are hardly any statues in Muslim-majority countries. For instance, Pakistan does not have a single statue of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the founder of the nation.

Noor's identity as a Muslim might have other interesting consequences, though, in a Britain where multiculturalism has been debated regularly for the past two decades. The fervour of the rhetoric on both sides has become more strident now.

Muslims constitute between 3 and 4 per cent of the population of the United Kingdom and have historically had a presence mainly through their colonial and Commonwealth ties, which had led to the immigration of working class people from South Asia. The U.K., long seen as a far more comfortable multicultural destination than many other European nations, has also seen a straining of racial and ethnic relations over the past two decades.

Britons were not very conscious of Islam until the notoriety of the Salman Rushdie affair in the late 1980s. While this first brought Islam into popular discourse, the September 11, 2001, bombings in the United States, and the July 7, 2005, bombings in the U.K. caused cracks in the slightly dented mosaic of Britain's multiculturalism. In 2001, riots in industrial towns in northern England saw white youth and Pakistani men slug it out in street battles. Books like Londonistan: How Britain is Creating a Terror State Within have stoked irrational fears of Islam in this country.

An article by Ian Jack in The Guardian argued strongly that a memorial for Noor should be built as it would deepen our sense of national history and widen, perhaps even subvert, the dull zealous view of religious identity (Why we need one more war memorial, November 6, 2010). This perspective of a liberal Briton shows how important the memorial could be in the nation's mindscape.

A memorial is a fitting tribute to the gallant actions of Noor. In India, the erection of statues has been a fecund territory for identity politics. Mayawati's statue-building spree across Uttar Pradesh and the statue diplomacy in 2009 when statues of the Tamil poet Tiruvalluvar and the Kannada poet Sarvagnya were unveiled in Bangalore and Chennai respectively after several years are only two examples of how caste and linguistic identities are asserted through statues.

Shrabani Basu's intentions seem far more innocent. She says she got the idea for the memorial after she published Spy Princess and lobbied long and hard to get wider support for her move. Leading expatriate Indians endorsed her efforts while the British Parliament gave cross-party support to the proposal. The Member of Parliament who tabled the Early Day Motion on June 22, 2010, in favour of the memorial was Valerie Vaz from Walsall, which has a significant South Asian community. On June 6, 2011, the British Parliament also witnessed a rousing discussion, with members across parties endorsing memorials for the women of the SOE.

A spot was identified for the proposed memorial in Gordon Square after the University of London's permission was granted in September 2010. When the memorial is finished, Noor will be in impressive Indian company. Mahatma Gandhi's meditative and finely detailed statue is around the corner in Tavistock Square. Tiruvalluvar's statue is also close by, just outside the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), while Rabindranath Tagore's bust has just been unveiled in Gordon Square.

On being asked details about the proposed memorial, Shrabani Basu wrote: The sculptor [for the memorial] is Karen Newman who has done many World War II heroines including the outdoor sculpture of Violette Szabo which is on the South Bank facing the Houses of Parliament. She wants to make it waist upwards, so it will be more than a bust. It will be installed close to where Noor lived as a child before the family moved to France. Sharing other details of her campaign, Shrabani Basu said that the Noor Inayat Khan Memorial Trust has managed to collect 42,000, but it needs 50,000 more.

While Noor's connections with India were tenuous, there is no doubt that she was of Indian origin. There have been other ethnic South Asian awardees of the George Cross who died valiantly defending the British Empire, but it is doubtful if they will ever be commemorated in London. Noor had strong linkages with Britain and worked for the SOE. Most importantly, she has a strong cheerleader in Shrabani Basu, who has single-handedly sparked worldwide interest in the spy princess. Many of the book reviews of Spy Princess collated on Shrabani Basu's website are from Indian newspapers, showing how Indian connections to the metropolis of the British Empire still excite us. That the South Asian community in the United Kingdom is strong enough to lobby and work together for a memorial shows that the community has come of age.

Statues are erected by societies that are dynamic and changing, and this only bodes well for South Asians in England. Memorials, in many forms including statues, also tend to spark off debates. Robin Jeffrey, the Australian scholar of India, writes: To put up a public, enduring symbol is very likely to stimulate discussion over its significance, and from such debates we can learn a good deal about the attitudes of, and divisions within, the community involved (What the statues tell: The politics of choosing symbols in Trivandrum, published in Pacific Affairs).

Britain is littered with war memorials. As the last bastion in Europe during the Second World War, the U.K.'s many war memorials have immortalised the roles of several individuals and groups. The many memorials also show how the country had an active role in most wars that changed the course of modern world history. For an Indian Muslim woman to take her place in this pantheon now will only add to the richness and diversity of the experience of war in Britain. It will also be testimony to an early chapter in the involvement of South Asians and Muslims in the British nation. Multiculturalism and integration of Muslims have also been debated widely in the British media over the past decade. Noor's memorial will, in some way, wedge itself gently, but firmly, in all these debates as the British South Asian and Muslim communities explore their own identities.

While race or religion has not been overtly responsible for the anarchic vandalism in London and other cities of England in early August 2011, a murmur of something close to that was faintly audible. In such circumstances, it is heartening to note that the majority of the donors to the cause of the memorial so far have been white Britons.

(For more details about the Noor Inayat Khan memorial, please log on to

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