This is the week Noor Inayat Khan, a half-Indian radio operator who died helping the Allied war effort against the Nazis, went from minor celebrity to a historical figure.
A London house in which Khan once lived is to get a Blue Plaque. Khan will be one of just over 900 people to achieve the honour in the 153 years the Blue Plaque scheme has been running. Hers is the only Blue Plaque for a woman of Indian ethnicity. Mahatma Gandhi has two of the plaques that commemorate famous inhabitants of the British capital. Nehru, Jinnah, Marx, Dickens, Orwell, John Lennon and Freddie Mercury each have one. That is the starry firmament to which Khan now belongs.
How this came to pass is almost as riveting a story as that of Khan. The making of the legend of Noor Inayat Khan is a recent enterprise. It may reflect Britain’s search for Muslim and ethnic minority female role models and the ceaseless hunger for inspirational figures who unite rather than divide. As actor Radhika Apte, who plays Khan in US director Lydia Dean’s film on World War II era British female spies, recently said, Khan was “born in Russia, her mother is American, father is Indian Muslim, she’s a British national who grew up in France”.
The facts about Khan’s life have been seeping into public consciousness over the past decade. “She’s now the best-known member of the family,” Martin Zamir Roehrs, assistant to Khan’s late brother Pir Vilayat, told Firstpost from Suresnes, the Khan family home in France.
This is true and somewhat surprising. By rights, Khan’s father should have had the bigger billing. Hazrat Inayat Khan is revered in Europe and the US as the founder of the Sufi Order of the West. Vilayat, Khan’s brother, also became a Sufi teacher of international repute. But it is Khan who will have a Blue Plaque. And, it was her bust that was unveiled in London in 2012 by Princess Anne.
Khan’s story is stirring. She was born in Moscow in 1914 to Inayat, then just an Indian musician, and Ora Ray Baker, an American. Her father’s Sufi order celebrated Universal Worship, a 20th century version of Emperor Akbar’s Din-i Ilahi.
Khan lived in London until age six and then moved with her parents and three younger siblings to France, where she went to school and college. She visited India just once, as a teenager. Her father died in 1927 but the family continued to live by his Sufi principles of non-violence, tolerance and respect for all religions.
After World War II broke out, Khan and Vilayat decided to join the effort against Nazi tyranny. The family, which had British passports because Inayat was a colonial subject, left Suresnes for London. Khan joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and trained to be a radio operator. Her fluent French meant she was picked to go to German-occupied France. She dodged the Germans as long as she could, was captured in October 1943 and kept in solitary confinement. Khan was shot dead in Dachau 11 months later. She was 30. The last word she reportedly said before being executed was “Liberté”.
No surprise then that attempts are underway to bring Khan’s story to the big screen. In 2012, Los Angeles and Mumbai-based filmmakers Zafar Hai and Tabrez Noorani acquired the rights to journalist Shrabani Basu’s biography Spy Princess. Then there is Dean’s film with Apte. In 2014, a PBS documentary, Enemy of the Reich: The Noor Inayat Khan Story, had Grace Srinivasan in the lead. A 2018 Netflix show, Churchill's Secret Agents, featured Khan. A play about her life and death premiered at the Ottawa Fringe Festival in June.
Arguably, none of this would have happened without Basu’s book. Until then, there was just one account of Khan’s work, a 1952 biography by her friend Jean Overton Fuller. It was Basu’s book, fleshing out Khan’s Indian links, which introduced her to a new generation of readers. It helped that the title Spy Princess made much of Khan’s link to Tipu Sultan, which stretched way back through her father to a granddaughter of the Tiger of Mysore.
Subsequent media accounts routinely seized on the glorious mythology about an Indian spy princess. A November 2018 New York Times obituary – part of a series on “remarkable people whose deaths went unreported” – inserted two inaccuracies about Khan into one sentence: “She was a princess, having been born into royalty in India…”
Britain has added to the myth-making, 75 years after Khan’s death, describing her as fighting for British values. She wasn’t, says Roehrs in Suresnes. She was fighting “for universal values”.
That’s as good a reason as any to honour Noor Inayat Khan.
Rashmee Roshan Lall is an international affairs columnist based in London
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