who became a SPY
Noor Inayat Khan, a princess of Indian origin, the first woman radio operator sent into Nazi-occupied France as a British secret agent, was killed by the Gestapo. London- based historian Shrabani Basu’s recent book reconstructs her life more reliably than ever before. Boyd Tonkin writes on the book and what it reveals
FOR more than half a century, myths, misconceptions and outright fantasies have crowded around the memory of Noor Inayat Khan, a Sufi pacifist who fought for Britain and died at the hands of the Gestapo. In her biography Spy Princess: the life of Noor Inayat Khan (Sutton Publishing), Shrabani Basu, historian and London-based correspondent for the Ananda Bazar Patrika Group, pieces together Noor’s story more fully and reliably than ever before.
And now, perhaps, is the right time to revisit the life of Princess Noor-un-nisa Inayat Khan, George Cross, Croix de Guerre with gold star, MBE: the British secret agent who was kicked into a "bloody mess" on the stone floors of Dachau concentration camp through the night of September 13, 1944, and then shot with the word "Liberte" on her lips. Hers, after all, is a remarkable chapter in the history of Muslims in Britain and the West.
She was the first female radio operator sent into Nazi-occupied France by the Special Operations Executive (SOE). Through the frantic, terrifying summer of 1943, the untried 29-year-old spy found herself virtually in charge of Resistance communications in the Paris area as the Gestapo arrested cell after cell around her.
Noor’s posthumous career as a war heroine began in earnest in 1952, when her friend and comrade Jean Overton Fuller did her best to dispel the confusion left by her death in a book, Madeleine — Noor’s Resistance codename.
Recently, two novels have embroidered her tale with the interests and penchants of their authors: the French writer Laurent Joffrin’s frankly romanticised All That I Have, and Shauna Singh Baldwin’s more politically engaged The Tiger Claw.
However, the recent declassification of personal files has allowed the always-murky deeds of SOE and its "F Section" agents who spied (and died) in France to emerge further into the light of history. Fresh material surfaced when, last year, Sarah Helm’s A Life in Secrets traced the biography of Vera Atkins: the SOE staff officer who, plagued by remorse at the hideous fate of so many of her F Section "girls", made a secret post-war enquiry into their betrayal and capture.
Noor Inayat Khan was the great-great-great granddaughter of Tipu Sultan, the ruler of Mysore whose celebrated military prowess stalled the advance of the East India Company forces at the end of the 18th century. Ever after, the British in India treated the family with utmost suspicion.
Yet Hazrat, her father, turned his back on this warrior tradition when he became a Sufi teacher and founded an order to spread, via music, his peaceful, tolerant and non-dogmatic faith. A gifted singer and instrumentalist from a family of virtuosi, he met his American wife on tour in California.
By the time Noor was born, in January 1914, the Inayat Khans were living and performing in Moscow, and her mother, the former Ora Ray Baker, had donned sari and veil as "Amina Begum".
Noor grew up in the suburbs of Paris, at "Fazal Manzil": a much-loved house in Suresnes outside which a military band still plays in her honour every July 14. The eldest child of four, seen by all as kind, vague and artistic, she suddenly had to take charge of the family when her father’s death on a visit to India in 1927 left her mother immobilised by grief.
In the 1930s, Noor studied music (especially the harp) at the Paris conservatory, and child psychology at the Sorbonne. She also became a talented writer and broadcaster of children’s stories.
After Germany invaded France in 1940, Noor and her brother Vilayet vowed that they would work — as Vilayat told Basu — "to thwart the aggression of the tyrant".
Noor volunteered for the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force) in England and started on the long road of signals and wireless training that would lead her — a woman raised in France, perfectly bilingual, and with advanced radio skills — to recruitment as a secret agent in November 1942.
"Single-handedly," according to Basu, "she did the work of six radio operators." In London, code-master Leo Marks noted that "her transmissions were flawless, with all their security checks intact"
.Noor was finally betrayed in October — probably by Renee Garry, sister of her first contact in Paris. Within minutes of being taken to the Gestapo HQ at 84 avenue Foch, she had climbed onto a bathroom window ledge in an escape attempt.
Forced by the Germans to keep up radio transmissions (the "radio game" inflicted on captured agents), Noor duly sent the agreed 18-letter signal to alert SOE about her capture. It was ignored: one of a catalogue of SOE blunders.
Now viewed as incorrigibly dangerous and uncooperative, Noor was sent in November 1942 to Pforzheim prison in Germany, where — bound by three chains, in solitary confinement — she endured 10 months of medieval abuse.
She ranked as a Nacht und Nebel ("Night and Fog") inmate, earmarked only for oblivion and death. Shackled, starved, beaten, she never talked. Then, in September 1944, came the transfer to Dachau along with three other female agents.
Knowing the whole truth — or almost the whole truth — about Noor does not make her any less paradoxical.
Basu also stresses that Noor fervently backed the struggle for Indian liberty. Indeed, Noor shocked — and maybe rather impressed — the interview panel when she went for an WAAF commission in 1942 by arguing that, after the war, she might feel obliged to fight the British in India. That makes her — although a commissioned British officer, and a holder of the George Cross — a curious national heroine.
The key to her career may be that this child of a liberal, cultured home freely chose her fate. She chose to fight Nazism; she chose to do it alongside the British; she chose the risks of espionage; and she chose to stay in Paris when SOE ordered her home.
— By arrangement with The Independent
K.S. Bains on Gurdwara Nanak Piao which was built under the supervision of Sardar Baghel Singh, head of the Karorsinghia misl. This is the second of a nine-part series on the important gurdwaras in Delhi
Compared to any other city, Delhi has the largest number of Sikhs. Though their numbers substantially increased in 1947 due to migration from Pakistan yet Sikhs have always been connected with Delhi.
This is probably the only city that has been visited by five gurus, namely Guru Nanak Dev, Guru Hargobind, Guru Harkishan, Guru Teg Bahadur and Guru Gobind Singh, out of the 10 Gurus.
Guru Nanak visited Delhi during the rule of Sikandar Lodhi. He camped in a garden on the outskirts of Delhi in the area now known as Sabzi Mandi. Guru Nanak delivered sermons and sang his bani (kirtan) accompanied by Bala and Mardana. Soon a number of people started visiting him regularly. The garden where he was staying soon became a place of pilgrimage. Many would bring gifts for the Guru which he distributed among the poor. Guru Nanak made it a missionary centre.
Many travellers passing through would stay there. The food was regularly given to those who stayed. During the day, Guru Nanak himself would serve water from the well. The owner of the garden donated the land and it became a public shrine in the name of Guru Nanak. Initially called Pau Sahib, it is now known as Gurdwara Nanak Piao.
Most of the historical gurdwaras have one or more sakhis (tales) connected with the gurus. While staying here one day, Guru Nanak saw some people crying bitterly. The Guru went to them and enquired from them the cause of their suffering. They told him that they were weeping because their elephant had died. The Guru told them that they were mistaken. The animal was not dead but merely sleeping. On hearing this, they went near the animal and found that it slowly came to life. They fell at his feet.
The Emperor was told about this and it was reported to him that Nanak was a non-Muslim fakir, equally admired both by Muslims and Hindus, was visited by a number of people. One day, the Emperor’s favourite elephant died and he sent for the Guru. He asked Guru Nanak to bring the animal back to life.
Guru Nanak merely smiled and humbly said he was nobody. Life and death of everybody was in His hands. HE was the true creator and destroyer. It was not given to ordinary human beings like him to interfere with His will. He further observed that whatever happens is according to His will and one should accept and rejoice in His doings. It left the Emperor upset and enraged.
The death anniversary of Guru Nanak is observed at Guru Nanak Piao. Many devotees come and offer their homage there on that day. Gurdwara is situated on the old G. T. Karnal road in the Sabzi Mandi area.
It has an impressive Mughal-style gate. Gurdwara is on a 4/5 feet high platform and has wide parikarama. The interiors of the main hall are very well done and part of the ceiling is in Sheesh Mahal style. Behind the gurdwara is a sarover with beautiful arched veranda on the periphery.
The historic well is still functional and amrit served by the volunteers. The well is covered with a white dome with pillars decorated in rather garishly.
There is a small garden which is in continuance of the garden that existed at that time. There is a separate set of rooms for holding individual akhand paths.
On the right side of the main gate are staff quarters which, for the sake of sanctity and beauty of the place, could have been located elsewhere in the premises. There is still lot of area lying vacant. Proper planning of that could greatly enhance the beauty and ambience of the gurdwara.