Noor-un-nisa was a woman of Indian origin with an exotic background. She was born in Moscow to an Indian father and an American mother, raised in Paris, educated at the Sorbonne, and featured on French radio. Why, she was even royalty, a direct descendant of India’s great Tipu Sultan.
So why was this artistic young lady, described as a ‘quiet’, ‘shy’ and ‘sensitive dreamer’, executed in a Nazi concentration camp? The answer has everything to do with her transformation from ‘Noor-un-nisa’, a pacifist with Gandhian principles, to ‘Nora’, a secret agent and Britain’s first British-Asian war heroine.
But who was she, really?
Noor-un-nisa was the daughter of Inayat Khan, a leading Sufi preacher and classical musician from Baroda. She was of royal descent as her father’s maternal grandmother was the granddaughter of Tipu Sultan, the 18th century king of Mysore.
As a musician, Inayat Khan sang in the royal courts of Baroda and Hyderabad but left India in 1910, to spread Sufi teachings in Europe and the US. It was at a Ramakrishna Mutt in San Francisco that he met Ora Ray Baker, an American, whom he married.
Shortly thereafter, the couple left for Moscow, where Noor was born on 1st January 1914, while her parents were guests of the Tsar. These were turbulent times filled with economic and political upheaval, and the events that followed deeply impacted Noor’s life.
A few months after she was born, World War I broke out and her family moved to London, and then to Paris. She spent her formative years in Paris, where she studied both, music and medicine.
Her father passed away in 1927, and 13-year old Noor, the eldest of four siblings, helped her mother raise their family. Trained in classical music, she began performing on Radio France and simultaneously wrote and published children’s books like the Twenty Jataka Tales (1939) and the play, Aede of the Ocean And Land.
When German forces invaded France during the Second World War, Noor and her family moved to England. Despite their Gandhian upbringing, she and her brother Vilayat decided to join the fight the Nazis. While her brother enlisted with the Royal Air Force (RAF), Noor volunteered with the Women’s Auxillary Air Force and trained as a wireless operator. She was among the first batch of women to train in this field.
The year 1941 was a turning point in Noor’s life. She was posted with the RAF Bomber Command at Abingdon, under the name ‘Nora’ Inayat Khan. It was a posting that shaped her destiny.
Just a year and a half into the job, Noor was recruited to join the France section of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), a secret organisation set up by Britain’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Its aim was to conduct espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance in occupied Europe against the Axis powers, and to aid local resistance movements.
SOE agents like Noor were trained to handle guns, explosives, break locks, kill silently and send letters in code. The toughest exercise was the mock Gestapo (Nazi secret police) interrogation that gave agents a taste of what could be in store if they were captured by the Nazis.
Ironically, Noor’s superiors questioned her skills for secret warfare, noting her ‘gentle manner’, ‘lack of ruse’ and ‘temperamental nature’. But her fluent French and radio skills worked in her favour. Noor thus became the first woman radio operator ever to be dropped behind enemy lines.
In the early hours of 17th June 1943, she was sent to France under the name ‘Madeleine’. Her role was to secretly transmit defence information via radio back to Britain. For three months, she used every trick she had learnt during her training, as she dodged the Nazis, constantly changed her location and altered her appearance to evade detection. She did all this while transmitting information across the airwaves that kept her on her toes.
But luck was not on her side for, on 13th October 1943, Noor was arrested and taken to the Gestapo headquarters in Paris. She had been betrayed by a French woman who had revealed Noor’s whereabouts to the Germans. The brave, young radio operator attempted to escape twice but was unsuccessful. The Nazis labelled her as ‘extremely dangerous’ and transferred her to the Pforzheim prison in Germany.
Here, Noor was tortured, shackled and put into solitary confinement but she refused to part with sensitive information. Ten months later, she was transported to Dachau and, on 13th September 1944, executed. She was only 30 years old.
For her valour and sacrificing her life in the line of duty, the French government posthumously awarded Noor the Croix de Guerre, and England the George Cross. In 2012, a bronze bust of Noor was unveiled at the Gordon Square Gardens in London, while in 2014 the Royal Mail issued a commemorative stamp in her honour.
But Noor’s story may linger much longer in the hearts of Britons, for her supporters are petitioning to have her featured on a new £50 note to be reissued by the Bank of England in 2020. If accepted, it would be a fitting tribute to a young lady who stood for what she believed was right even though she knew she could pay the ultimate price.