Noor Inayat Khan: An incredible story of a spy
“Liberté”. This was the last word Noor Inayat Khan uttered before being first brutalised and then shot from behind. It’s a French word, meaning liberty: a word that has inspired countless women and men to the supreme sacrifice throughout human history. Sadly, the mainstream chronicle of such sacrifice in dark times has largely been a story of male heroism.
Stories such as the one of Noor Inayat Khan continue to this day to be mere footnotes to the larger narrative. Yet the life-story of this young Muslim martyr, is nothing less than stuff for pure legend. Brave Noor chose to die resisting the darkest socio-political madness that swept across Europe in the 1940s: Fascism.
World War II and Noor Inayat Khan
1943. The Axis forces, primarily driven by Germany’s Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler, had begun to bulldoze nation after neighbouring nation under the ruthless Wehrmacht. The occupation of France by the German forces had just been completed in November 1943.
A mad philosophical postulate proclaiming the supremacy of the so called “Aryan race” over all other races, and in an unprecedented bloody socio-political plot to enforce this mad theory Nazi and Fascist dictators had already begun to execute millions. Saner leaders of various other countries had begun to realise that nothing could halt the march of this madness without an all-out resistance, ranging from formal warfare to relentless guerrilla strikes against the occupying Wehrmacht.
On the other side of the canvas, Europe was reeling under fear, resistance was largely clandestine and unorganized.
Birth and childhood of Noor Inayat Khan
In this scenario, Noor, a young bright Muslim of Indian origin on her father’s side, and American on her mother’s, consciously decided to join the resistance against Fascist and Nazi forces. She was born in 1914. Her father was Inayat Khan, an internationally acclaimed Indian Sufi leader, who deeply believed in universal peace and love. Noor’s mother was an American, name Ora Ray Baker. In 1920 the family moved to France, and after Inayat’s death, Noor being the eldest of the four siblings, took control of the family. By then she was a regular contributor to various French magazines and French radio.
Noor Inayat Khan’s book on Buddhist Jataka tales was published in 1939 from London. She had studied psychology at the famous Sorbonne and was also trained in music at the Paris Conservatory. A firm believer in her dad’s ideals of love and peace, Noor to all her friends and acquaintances was a gentle, shy, dreamy young woman far removed from the ruthlessness of war, the first cinders of which had already begun to burn in neighbouring nations.
Within a year that reality reached France as the German Wehrmacht marched in. Noor and her family were forced to relocate to England. And soon, in a stunning change of course of her life so far, she decided to join the British war-effort against the Germans. Within three years Noor became the first female wireless operator as a Special Operations Executive (SOE) spy, clandestinely smuggled to Nazi occupied France, with the task of aiding the local resistance movement, on June 17, 1943.
The job was so dangerous that in 1943 the average life expectancy of such operators was around six months. By all accounts, she not only insisted on taking this responsibility, despite discouragement from both her service superiors and her brother Vilayat, but she also refused to return to England, when she was so offered, with weeks of her arrival in France.
On October 13, 1943, betrayed by a French double-agent, the brave young lady was arrested by the Germans. Relentless brutal interrogations continued for 11 months. She did make a grave mistake of keeping records of her transmissions, which fell into German hands when she was picked up, but Noor gave nothing away, except some personal details. Not a word about her job or colleagues and compatriots escaped her lips. Finally, clearly frustrated with her determination an SS officer tortured her severely and shot her from the back on September 13, 1944. “Liberté”, uttered Noor Inayat Khan, and fell to the ground.
(Written by Author and Translator Nilanjan Hajra)