Tipu Sultan’s descendent: Noor Inayat’s saga of valour
WHILE 1 January is celebrated in most of the world as New Year’s Day, few people—especially in our part of the world—are aware that on this day in 1914, a descendant of the Tiger of Mysore, Tipu Sultan was born in the Russian capital Moscow.
She won fame much after her painful death but has belatedly been acclaimed for her bravery.
While Tipu Sultan sacrificed his life fighting the British East India Company in 1799 trying to rid his homeland of the British occupation, his descendant sacrificed her life in the service of the Crown.
Her name is Noor-un-Nisa Inayat Khan, also known as Nora Inayat Khan and Nora Baker.
She was a British spy in World War II who served in the Special Operations Executive (SOE), which was responsible for conducting espionage and reconnaissance in occupied Europe and to aid local resistance movements.
As an SOE agent under the codename “Madeline” she became the first female wireless operator to be sent from the UK into occupied France to aid the French Resistance during World War II.
Noor was captured after being betrayed, and executed at Dachau concentration camp in Germany.
For her service in the SOE, she was posthumously but belatedly awarded the George Cross, the highest award bestowed by the British government for non-operational bravery, which is equivalent to the Victoria Cross, the highest military gallantry award.
She is also the recipient of the French Croix de Guerre with a silver star (avec étoile de vermeil).
A memorial bust of Noor Inayat Khan was erected in Gordon Square Gardens, Bloomsbury, London. It is the first memorial to either a Muslim or an Asian woman in Britain.
Noor has also been commemorated on the FANY (First Aid Nursing Yeomanry) memorial in St Paul’s Church, Wilton Place, Knightsbridge, London, which lists the 52 members of the Corps who gave their lives on active service.
Noor was commemorated on a stamp which was issued by the Royal Mail on 25 March 2014 in a set of stamps about “Remarkable Lives”.
In 2018, a campaign was launched to have Noor represented on the next version of the £50 note.
On 25 February 2019, it was announced that Noor Inayat Khan would be honoured with a blue plaque at her wartime London home at 4 Taviton Street in Bloomsbury—the house that she left on her final and fatal mission and the address that she etched onto her bowl while in prison before her execution, so she could be identified.
Noor is the first woman of South Asian descent to have a blue plaque honouring her in London.
Her contribution to the war came to light after author Shrabani Basu wrote Noor’s biography, “Spy Princess”, in 2006.
Numerous other books, plays, poems, films and documentaries have been produced to pay homage to this gallant and selfless Muslim girl of the sub-continent.
While the irony of the contrast between Tipu Sultan’s martyrdom and Noor has been mentioned, it is important to point out that the Tiger of Mysore himself, was not just a ruler and soldier but also a scholar, and a poet.
He was a devout Muslim but the majority of his subjects were Hindus. At the request of the French, he built a church, the first in Mysore.
Noor’s father, Inayat Khan, a direct descendant of Tipu Sultan, had moved to Europe as a musician and a teacher of Sufism.
Her mother, Pirani Ameena Begum (born Ora Ray Baker), was an American from Albuquerque, New Mexico, who met Inayat Khan during his travels in the United States.
In Russia, Inayat Khan was received as a guest of the Czar Nicholas II, whose country, troubled by internal unrest and looming war, was seeking spiritual solutions to the problems facing his regime.
Therefore, the influential Gregory Rasputin invited Inayat Khan to visit Russia in order to share with the Emperor’s family and court his Sufistic doctrines of peace and love.
In 1914, shortly before the outbreak of the First World War, the Khan family left Russia for London and lived in Bloomsbury.
In 1920, they moved to France. After the death of her father in 1927, 13-year-old Noor took on the responsibility for her grief-stricken mother and her younger siblings.
She went on to study child psychology at the Sorbonne, as well as music at the Paris Conservatory.
As a young woman, Noor also began a career as a writer, publishing her poetry and children’s stories in English and French, becoming a regular contributor to children’s magazines and French Radio.
In 1939, her book “Twenty Jataka Tales”, inspired by the “Jâtaka tales” of Buddhist tradition, was published in London.
After the outbreak of the Second World War, when France was invaded by German troops, the family fled to Bordeaux and, from there by sea, to England.
Although Noor was a pacifist by nature, she raised her voice for India’s freedom yet she and her brother Vilayat decided to help defeat Nazi tyranny.
Vilayat Inayat Khan later became head of the Sufi Order International. In November 1940, Noor joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) as an Aircrafts woman 2nd Class and was sent to be trained as a wireless operator.
In June 1941, she applied for a commission. Owing to her fluency in French and proficiency as a wireless operator, Noor was picked up by SOE and in early February 1943 she was posted to the Air Ministry, Directorate of Air Intelligence.
During her training she adopted the name Nora Baker. She was promoted to Assistant Section Officer (the WAAF equivalent of RAF Pilot Officer), and flown clandestinely by a Lysander aircraft to France.
Her mission was highly dangerous and she was the first female wireless operator to be sent to France. Her new identity was a children’s nurse, “Jeanne-Marie Regnier”, using fake papers.
After a successful stint, Noor became endangered as Germans began to round up British spies owing to a mole leaking information.
Noor was given the option to return but she chose to stay on because of the sensitivity of the mission and being the only wireless operator behind enemy lines.
Unfortunately, like her ancestor Tipu Sultan, she too was betrayed by a fellow agent and arrested.
Noor attempted to escape twice but was apprehended and sent to Germany. Despite extreme torture, Noor refused to reveal any vital information to her captors.
On 13 September 1944, Noor, along with four other captives was executed and buried in an unmarked grave.
According to Pat Kinsella, her last word was ‘Liberté. ’ The legend of Noor Inayat Khan lives on and she is a source of inspiration to women in Britain as well as the sub-continent.
—The writer is a Retired Group Captain of PAF, who has written several books on China.