Sarah Williams for Voice of America, February 14, 2011:
A campaign is underway to honor Noor Inayat Khan, an Indian woman who spied for Britain during World War II.
Born in 1914, she favored India’s independence from Britain. But she put her feelings aside to help the British fight Nazi Germany. She was eventually caught in occupied France and executed at Dachau concentration camp.
Efforts are underway to raise about $155,000 to place a bronze bust of Noor Inayat Khan in the London square where she once lived. The bust would be the first memorial in Britain to either a Muslim or an Asian woman.
Cover of the book “Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan” by author Shrabani Basu
VOA’s Sarah Williams spoke with with Shrabani Basu, author of the book“Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan,” to learn more about the World World Two heroine.
Tell me about her background, her family, where she grew up?
“She was brought up in France. Her father was a Sufi teacher. Sufism is a branch, a liberal branch of Islam. So he was a preacher who traveled from India and took Sufism to the West. So, it was a very exotic background. She was also descended from a very well known sultan from south India. His name was Tipu Sultan. So she had royal blood in her as well. And her mother was American, so she was mixed race.
Why did she decide to spy for the British despite the fact that she supported Indian independence?
“Well, actually, it was a conflict in her, because her father, she came from a strongly nationalist family. And her ancestor, Tipu Sultan, had died fighting the British, so it wasn’t an easy decision. But she was very focused, and she said, ‘At this moment, Nazism is the biggest evil business to be fought.’ And she said this to her seniors at the Royal Air Force. She said, ‘I am with you and this war has to be won, it’s crucial we win this war. After the war, I’ll go back to supporting Indian independence.’ So, she was really frank, she couldn’t lie, she told them her beliefs, straight out.”
What did she do as far as espionage during the war?
“Well, she was an SOE agent. The SOE was called the Special Operations Executive. It was like a secret, crack organization, but it helped the resistance movements. They would supply arms to the French resistance. They would sabotage tracks and places that could help the Germans. And she herself was a radio operator, so she was sent in to what was one of the most dangerous areas in the field. She was the first woman radio operator to be sent to occupied France. Previously, only men went there because it was so dangerous.”
And why was she chosen for this highly sensitive job?
“Well, she fit the bill. While she was in the WAAF, the Women’s Air Force, which is where she first volunteered, and she had been trained in Morse and in radio operation, the SOE were looking out for people with language skills. So, she fit the bill because she was fluent in French, she knew the area well, they knew her background. And also the big plus was that she was a trained radio operator. And they desperately needed radio operators because they were dropping like flies over there, they would last a week and get caught, it was so dangerous. And Noor was the first woman to be sent in.”
How was she apprehended and how was she found out?
“She would have survived, she was doing incredibly well. She worked for three months, whereas her male colleagues had lasted about a week or two weeks at the most. But unfortunately, she was betrayed. We know occupied France was full of informers, and there was also a little bit of jealousy, so she was actually betrayed. She was very beautiful, she was very popular, and that has its disadvantages sometimes. The leader of her circuit, his sister, actually betrayed her, sold her address to the Germans for 100,000 francs. And once they had her address, they entered her flat, and arrested her. And then,of course, she was sent to prison after that.”
And she was executed, right?
“First, she was kept at a prison in Pforzheim in Germany, again the first woman agent to be sent to a German prison. And there for 10 months, she was kept shackled in chains, she couldn’t feed herself, she couldn’t clean herself. She had to be fed, she was kept in isolation, but she kept her spirits up. And then, after 10 months, despite torture, horrific torture, and beatings every day, she didn’t reveal anything. Then, finally, the orders came and she was sent to Dachau concentration camp with two other women agents and they were executed. But Noor was singled out that whole night, she was singled out and tortured even more, even on the last day she was shot.”
I believe as she was killed, she shouted out, “Liberte!”
“That’s right. Her spirit just remained with her, she was so defiant that eyewitnesses say that though she was beaten to pulp, she was half-dead, she was almost kicked to death. They couldn’t break her spirit, and that was what even the Germans admired about her. In the war crimes trial afterwards, they said that they had not been able to get anything out of Noor Inayat Khan. In fact, they did not even know her name they knew her only as Nora Baker, which is the name she gave them. They had no idea she was Indian, they had no idea she was called Noor Inayat Khan.”
On a happier note, what about the present efforts underway to honor her?
“The idea came from my readers, after my book was published. There were three women who were awarded the George Cross, there is nothing on Noor Inayat Khan, so there was a gap that had to be filled. And so I started campaigning, and then I got the support of other women and women lawmakers from the British Parliament. And Valerie Vaz, who’s a Labour MP [member of parliament], she tabled an Early Day Motion, and so the ball began rolling. And we got the permission to have the bust in Gordon Square, which is really important because Gordon Square is so associated with Noor. She lived there as a child on Number One Gordon Square, played in the park. And as a secret agent, she came back and lived in one of the streets off Gordon Square. She would often sit on an off day on one of the benches, reading a book, or walking down to the British Library, so there’s a lot of Noor. It’ll be wonderful to bring Noor back to Gordon Square.