Written by Kamal Preet Kaur
The house in Taviton Street, Bloomsbury, London, where Noor Inayat Khan once lived, got a distinct blue plaque on Friday to commemorate the Indian-origin woman who worked as a spy for Britain during World War II.
“A descendant of Tipu Sultan, Noor Inayat Khan became a secret agent during the Second World War. She was the first woman radio operator to be infiltrated into occupied France in 1943 and worked under the code name ‘Madeleine’,” said her biographer Shrabani Basu, who was invited to officially unveil the plaque online. Noor’s nephew Zia Inayat Khan was also present on the occasion.
London’s famous Blue Plaques link historical figures with buildings in the city.
Currently run by English Heritage, the London Blue Plaques scheme was started in 1866. There are over 950 plaques across London “on buildings humble and grand, to honour the notable men and women who have lived or worked in them”.
Anna Eavis, curatorial director at English Heritage, said, “We’re so pleased to be able to continue unveiling our 2020 Blue Plaques with this virtual ceremony… I am particularly delighted to start with Noor Inayat Khan, whose courage was unfaltering even in the face of such extreme danger.”
Noor joins the likes of Ada Lovelace, the pioneer of computing, Rosalind Franklin, the scientist who helped discover DNA, and Dame Maud McCarthy, who was Army Matron-in-Chief during World War I.
English Heritage’s ongoing “plaques for women” campaign has seen a dramatic rise in the number of public nominations for women since it launched in 2016. However, only 14 per cent of the over 950 London Blue Plaques celebrate women, said Eavis.
Remembering Noor, Basu said, when Noor Inayat Khan left this house on her last mission, she would have never dreamed that one day she would become a symbol of bravery. “It is fitting that Noor Inayat Khan is the first woman of Indian origin to be remembered with a Blue Plaque. As people walk by, Noor’s story will continue to inspire future generations. In today’s world, her vision of unity and freedom is more important than ever.”
Renowned for her service in the Special Operations Executive, an independent British secret service set up by Winston Churchill in 1940, Noor was Britain’s first Indian Muslim war heroine in Europe and the first female radio operator sent into Nazi-occupied France. She was killed at the Dachau concentration camp in 1944, and was posthumously awarded the the George Cross in 1949.
“Born in Russia to an Indian father and an American mother, Khan’s story has been forgotten. It’s wonderful she is being honoured,” Birmingham Edgbaston MP Preet Kaur Gill said.
“This is an outstanding achievement and well deserved recognition. It is a fitting tribute to an exceptional woman of Indian-origin who believed in peace, unity and humanity,” said Seema Malhotra, MP from Feltham and Heston.
Basu, who wrote the book Spy Princess about Noor in 2006, set up the Noor Inayat Khan Memorial Trust in 2010 to ensure that her story would be preserved for the next generation. A memorial was unveiled in London’s Gordon Square by Princess Anne in November 2012, and that was followed by the release of a Royal Mail stamp in honour of Noor in March 2014.
“Her life is so interesting. She was a Sufi who believed in non-violence and in the unity of religions. But then she came here and volunteered for the war because she felt it was equally important to fight fascism,” Basu said.
Basu said Noor had planned to return to being a children’s writer and musician after the war.
“She knew how dangerous her mission was and she knew she could get killed… Eventually, her circuit collapsed around her and she remained the last link with London, but refused to abandon her post despite the dangers. However, she was betrayed and arrested by the Germans and shot in the Dachau concentration camp,” Basu said.