Noor Inayat Khan: The forgotten Muslim princess who fought Nazis

A new film, A Call to Spy, sheds light on an Indian princess who spied for the British during World War II and was eventually killed by Nazis.

Noor Inayat Khan with a vina, a stringed Indian musical instrument [Courtesy of Shrabani Basu]

She spied for Britain during World War II and was eventually caught and killed by the Nazis, but Noor Inayat Khan, a descendant of Tipu Sultan – an 18th-century Muslim ruler of Mysore state – remained in near anonymity for decades.

Her contribution to the war came to light after author Shrabani Basu wrote Noor’s biography, Spy Princess, in 2006.

This year, Britain awarded her with the Blue Plaque – the first Indian origin woman to be honoured with the title for her sacrifices as a Special Operations Executive (SOE) in France. She was captured by the Gestapo – the official secret police of Nazi Germany – in Paris and taken to Germany where she was executed in 1944.

In 2014, a stamp was issued in her honour and there are reports that her face may soon appear on British coins.

For her valiant efforts, Noor was posthumously awarded the George Cross, the United Kingdom’s highest civilian award, in 1949 and the French Croix de Guerre, a military honour awarded by France in 1946.

A biopic, A Call To Spy, released on October 2, pays tribute to the work of three female British spies during the second World War, including Noor, who was also a children stories writer and pacifist.

I think Noor Inayat Khan is one of the most extraordinary people I have come across,” Radhika Apte, who portrays Khan in the film, told Al Jazeera from London.

“She was at such an interesting juncture of being a pacifist and also her inactivity, of not doing anything, could have consequences for the war,” said Apte, who starred in the hit Netflix series Lust Stories, for which she received an Emmy nomination for Best Actress.

Radhika Apte in A Call to Spy [Courtesy of IFC films]

Shrabani, who founded a memorial in 2012 in the name of Noor, told Al Jazeera from London that Khan did not have to fight the war, but did so for her core principles of “non-violence, universality of religions, fighting against fascism and occupation”.

Prior to the war, Noor lived a largely peaceful life and grew up to become a prolific children stories writer, contributing regularly to the local French radio and magazines.

Her most notable work included Twenty Jataka Tales, an English translation of stories about the reincarnation of Buddha.

‘Intrinsically selfless’

Noor was born on January 1, 1914, in the Russian capital Moscow. Her father, Inayat Khan, a musician and Sufi preacher, and mother, Amina Begum (previously Ora Ray Baker). The family moved to England shortly after World War I broke out the same year.

After facing increased surveillance from the British for his pro-India views, Inayat would again relocate the family in 1920 to Paris, where Noor lived with her three younger siblings until the age of 26. Her great-great-great-grandfather Tipu Sultan died fighting against British rule in India in 1799.

After the Nazis captured France in 1940, Noor’s life came to an abrupt halt, and she fled for a second time to Britain along with thousands of other French residents.

Immediately after her arrival, she joined the war effort, signing up for the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, the female auxiliary for the UK’s Royal Air Force, as a wireless operator – a job Shrabani said she excelled at.

“To Noor, the ideology of the Nazis and their pogrom against the Jews was fundamentally repulsive and opposed to all the principles of religious harmony that she been brought up with by her father,” Shrabani wrote in Spy Princess.

Noor, right, with her brother Vilayat and father Inayat Khan [File: Courtesy of Noor Society]

“She was Muslim by birth but she had loved a Jewish man, and Noor felt the urge to do something to help the war effort.”

Khan’s father Inayat was a prominent preacher of Sufism – a mystical practice of Islam.

According to Shrabani’s Spy Princess, Inayat was a firm believer in non-violence and the oneness of all religions, concepts which Noor internalised growing up. Her father died in 1927 during a trip to India, leaving 13-year-old Noor, the oldest child, to help her mother raise her siblings.

“From a young age, Khan was already someone who was always very intrinsically selfless and self-giving,” her nephew and leader of the Inayati Order, Pir Zia Inayat Khan, told Al Jazeera.

Noor always stood up for those who were subjugated, Pir Zia added, no matter what their background was.

“She was willing to make any sacrifice for the oppressed. Despite not being British, she served their cause, and would’ve stood for Indian independence after as well,” he added.

Noor was a strong believer of Indian freedom fighter Mahatma Gandhi’s struggle for an end to British colonialism on the subcontinent. According to Spy Princess, she told her UK army recruiters that once the war ended, she might have to support India over Britain.

‘Perfect for the job’

Noor, who was fluent in French, was recruited by the Special Operations Executive (SOE), a secret British organisation that sent spies to help local resistance movements in occupied Europe.

Fully aware of the highly dangerous nature of the assignment, combined with little monetary compensation, Noor immediately accepted the offer.

In June 1943, Khan was sent to France under the code name “Madeleine”, the first woman wireless operator to be deployed to the country by the UK. After landing in the city of Le Mans, Noor travelled to Paris, where she would work with the French resistance network “Prosper”.

Within days of her deployment, all the high-ranking Prosper agents were captured by the Nazis, and their wireless sets seized, leaving Noor as the only operator in the field for the next few months.

Noor Inayat Khan in the RAF uniform [File: Courtesy of Shrabani Basu]

After seemingly being betrayed by one of her colleagues, she was captured by the Gestapo in October the same year and taken to Germany a month later.

The Gestapo considered Noor a highly dangerous prisoner, who had never given up anyone to the Germans and had tried escaping twice under their watch, according to the accounts in the book.

During her near one-year imprisonment, she was tortured, and shackled. Later, she was moved to Dachau concentration camp near Munich, where she was shot alongside three other SOE agents.

According to Spy Princess, Noor’s interrogator in Paris, Ernst Vogt, told Jean Overton Fuller, a friend and author of Khan’s 1952 biography Madeleine, how he had never come across someone like her and “admired her courage, bravery and kindness”.

He [Vogt] once asked her whether she had wasted her life by joining the service and that her sacrifice was in vain … she replied it did not matter. She had served her country and that was recompense.” 

Growing recognition

Apte, the Indian actor, told Al Jazeera one reason she signed up for A Call to Spy was the lack of discussion around female contributions to the war.

“I think when we talk about war, we talk about men so often, and don’t really talk about the struggle and the efforts that women put up,” Apte said.

With decades passing without any public acknowledgement of Noor’s work, there has been a resurgence of interest in her story.

In August, Noor became the first South Asian woman to be honoured with the prestigious Blue Plaque in Bloomsbury where she lived, a campaign spearheaded by Shrabani. The honour is a London scheme where a plaque of a notable figure is fitted near a building in which the person worked or lived.


Shrabani Basu with Britain’s Princess Anne at the unveiling of the Noor Inayat Khan statue in central London on November 8, 2012 [File: Olivia Harris/Reuters]

“She deserves this honour for her bravery and standing up for her principles. She never cracked under pressure,” Shrabani said, who also runs the Noor Inayat Khan Memorial.

In 2012, a statue of Khan was unveiled in London by Princess Anne honouring her war heroics.

The Indian-born writer noted it was important to realise the war would not have been won by the allies without the likes of Noor and millions from the British colonies, a fact which is too often ignored.

Experts say the contribution of people of Asian descent and people of colour to the nation-building has hardly been acknowledged at a time when ethnic minorities feel increasingly marginalised under a right-wing government.

“The understanding in the West is that Britain won this war on its own, that Churchill won it for them. They need to know there were 2.5 million people of the Indian subcontinent who came forward to volunteer for this war,” said Shrabani, whose other book Victoria and Abdul was made into a film.

“This was won on the backs of these Indians – and Noor is part of them.”