British media reported this week that Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, is considering a proposal to feature historical figures from the Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) community of the country on a set of coins titled ‘Service to the Nation’.
If the proposal is passed, it will be the first time that non-white people will be featured on British coins or notes. The plan has been submitted to the Royal Mint, which is to come up with proposals and designs.
Zehra Zaidi of the advocacy campaign ‘Banknotes of Colour’, along with a group of historians and MPs, had written to the Chancellor proposing some historical figures. Among them were the Indian-origin British spy Noor Inayat Khan, as well as Khudadad Khan, the first soldier of the British Indian Army to receive the Victoria Cross. Khudadad Khan, who belonged to the Chakwal district of Punjab in present-day Pakistan, died in 1971.
The continuing Black Lives Matter protests in the United States, triggered by the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis in May, which have put a spotlight on the lack of BAME representation in the UK, and have compelled authorities to take appropriate steps.
Born in Moscow to an Indian father and an American mother, her family moved to London and then to Paris during the First World War. Although Noor started working as a children’s writer in Paris, she escaped to England after the fall of France (when it was invaded by Germany) during the Second World War.
In November 1940, she joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, an arm of the UK’s Royal Air Force to train as a wireless operator. She then did a stint at the secret intelligence organisation set up by Winston Churchill called Special Operations Executive (SOE).
She became the first radio operator to be sent to Paris to work for SOE’s Prosper resistance network under the codename Madeleine. She was just 29 then, and had signed up for a job in which people were not expected to be alive for longer than six weeks.
Even as many members of the network were being arrested by the Nazi secret police Gestapo, Noor chose to stay put — and spent the summer moving from one place to another, sending messages back to London, until she was arrested in 1943.
She was executed at the Dachau concentration camp in southern Germany near Munich. Noor was awarded the highest honour in the UK, the George Cross, in 1949, and the French Croix de Guerre with the silver star posthumously.
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She was connected to India through her father Inayat Khan. He was founder of the Sufi Order of the West, which is now known as the Inayati Order. He had migrated to the West as n Hindustani classical musician, and then moved to teaching Sufism.
Inayat Khan was born in Baroda. His maternal grandfather was the noted musician Ustad Maula Bakhsh Khan, who founded the music academy Gyanshala, which now serves as the Faculty of Performing Arts at Maharaja Sayajirao University. Maula Bakhsh’s wife, Qasim Bibi, was a granddaughter of Tipu Sultan of Mysore.
Inayat returned to India in 1926 and chose the site of his burial at the Nizamuddin Dargah complex in New Delhi. The Inayat Khan dargah still stands in a corner of the complex.
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In 2014, Britain’s Royal Mail had issued a postage stamp in honour of Noor as part of a set of 10 stamps in the ‘Remarkable Lives’ series. In 2012, a memorial with a bust of Noor was unveiled in London by Princess Anne. Shrabani Basu, author of ‘Spy Princess, The Life of Noor Inayat Khan’, and Chair of the Noor Inayat Khan Memorial Trust, had campaigned for the memorial.
In February 2019, Noor’s London home at 4 Taviton Street in Bloomsbury, the house that she left for her final mission, was honoured with a blue plaque. She was the first Indian-origin woman to be awarded the plaque.
Various documentaries on women agents and the SOE have featured her story, such as Netflix’s ‘Churchill’s Secret Agents: The New Recruits’. In 2018, a play titled ‘Agent Madeleine’ premiered at the Ottawa Fringe Festival.
In 2012, Indian producers Zafar Hai and Tabrez Noorani obtained the film rights to the biography by Basu. In the film ‘Liberté: A Call to Spy’, an American historical drama, actor Radhika Apte played the role of Noor. The film had its world premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival last year.