Thursday, April 29, 2010

The princess who was a spy

The arrest of Indian diplomat Madhuri Gupta on spying charges has once again brought the focus on the network of intelligence agencies. During the days of war, spies played a crucial role in relaying information about the enemy camp. Gupta's case made me think of Noor Inayat Khan, the British spy who was captured and killed by the German army.

Noor Khan was the great-great-great granddaughter of Tipu Sultan and was the first woman radio operator who was sent into the German-occupied France by the British. She was born in 1914 to Hazrat Inayat Khan and Ora Ray Baker, who was later known as Pirani Ameena Begum.

Inayat Khan (in pic below with an infant Noor) was a Sufi mystic and an expert in Indian classical music. The Nizam of Hyderabad had given him the titile of Tansen and he was sought after by several kings and princes. Inayat Khan had travelled the length and breadth of India and had come under the influence of Shaikh Mohammed Hashim Madani. His grandfather Maula Baksh was a legendary musician who had sent his younger son Alauddin (Inayat Khan's uncle) to London to study at the Royal Academy of Music.

Armed with his interest in music and to propagate Sufi thought, Inayat left India and travelled to several countries across the world. While he was in Russia, Noor his eldest child was born. The whole family moved to London from where they eventually settled in France. In 1927, Inayat Khan died while he was on a visit to India.

Noor went on to study music and took a degree in child psychology. She also started contributing to children's magazines and French radio. However, with the outbreak of World War II the family had to leave Paris and went back to London. Noor had undertaken a course in nursing from the Red Cross and nursed the ambition to fight against the rampaging Germans. It was not an easy decision for the daughter of a Sufi pacifist to literally enter the battlefield, but she was determined to fight the fascist forces.

She joined the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) and was trained as a wireless operator. During the interview she told the panel that after the war she might fight the British occupation in India! In February 1943, she was posted to the Directorate of Air Intelligence and after training she was sent to France in June the same year.

She managed to constantly dodge the German intelligence and continued to transmit messages under trying circumstances to London. The London Gazette notes: "She refused to abandon what had become the most important and dangerous post in France and did excellent work." She was captured by the Germans on a tip-off.

Driven by her passion to fight and with indomitable courage, she tried to escape but was unsuccessful. She did not give out any details to the Germans. On 25 November 1943, she managed to escape along with two other prisoners. Before they could get away far, an air raid alert got the Germans in action who then undertook a count of prisoners.

The feisty lady was again captured and this time she was taken to Germany and was kept under solitary confinement. She was classified as highly dangerous and all efforts to make her speak did not yield much. However, the Germans had found her notebook that had a record of all the messages she had sent to London.

On September 13, 1944 Noor was asked to kneel down and was shot from behind. When she died she was just 30. Noor's bravery and her heroic contribution to fight the Germans has all the ingredients of an ideal spy. Her courage and determination is the stuff legends are made of.

In September 2006, when Pranab Mukherjee was in France he visited Noor's house 'Fazal Manzil' where she grew up in Surenes near Paris. The British government honoured her with the George Cross and every year on July 14 a military band plays in her honour outside 'Fazal Manzil'.

The book 'Spy princess: the story of Noor Inayat Khan' by journalist Shrabani Basu brought her back in public memory. While Madhuri Gupta cools her heels behind bars the book should perhaps be made a compulsory read for her!

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