Since her 2006 book on the Indian-origin British spy, journalist Shrabani Basu has made it her mission to spread Noor Inayat Khan's name far and wide. Now Khan's face may appear on British coins soon
Noor Inayat Khan’s face may soon appear on British coins, according to the UK chancellor of exchequer Rishi Sunak, but her name didn’t mean much to most people until recently.
It all changed in 2006, when journalist Shrabani Basu wrote her gripping book, Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan, putting the Indian-born double agent into popular focus. The only Indian-origin woman to have worked as a Special Operations Executive (SOE) in World War II, Khan was discovered and executed by the Gestapo at the Dachau concentration camp in 1944. She wasn't 30 yet.
In the last 15 years, Basu has tirelessly campaigned for greater recognition of Khan’s contribution to the war effort. Descended from the line of Tipu Sultan, she was born in Moscow in 1914 and raised a Sufi. Shaped by a cosmopolitan family, she never forgot her origins or humanist faith—fighting against fascism till her last breath.
Khan's London home has already selected to be marked by the Blue Plaque, a memorial installed at the residences of famous personalities in the UK. She is the only Indian-origin woman to be honoured by this prestigious gesture and will be the only one to feature on British currency, if the plan works out.
Basu, whose other books include Victoria & Abdul (the inspiration behind the film), spoke to Mint about Khan’s enduring significance, especially in a world torn by right-wing politics and charged by the Black Lives Matter movement. Edited excerpts.
How does it feel to reach this moment since you began campaigning for Khan's national recognition in 2006?
It’s been a long journey since 2006, but worth every minute of it. It is fantastic to see how Noor’s life continues to inspire. The Memorial was unveiled in 2012, the stamp was issued in 2014, the Blue Plaque will be up this year. And now, she may have her face on a coin. I feel I have lived up to the promise I made to her brothers when I first began my research. I told them I would make sure that Noor Inayat Khan became a household name.
What does Khan's legacy mean for Asian people in the UK and the diaspora at this time when right-wing politics are on the rise?
When young Asian women in Britain hear about her bravery, they feel proud and empowered. Noor has become a role model. I get requests from students from around the world who want to write an essay or do further research on her.
Few people in Britain know about the contribution of Indians in the two World Wars. At a time when ethnic minorities have been feeling marginalised, there is a real need to tell the story of people like Noor and other Indian soldiers. It gives ownership. British Asians can say that their ancestors, too, fought in the war, that they held the line in Belgium during a crucial time in World War I, that they fought against fascism in World War II.
As we observe the 75th anniversary of the end of the war, this is all the more important. It takes away from the usual narrative that the wars were fought and won by Britain. Instead, it tells the story of how five million soldiers from the colonies helped Britain and the Allies to win World War II, out of which 2.5 million were from undivided India.
In the present context of the coronavirus pandemic, it has been South Asian doctors and health care workers who have died in the frontline. The largest number of deaths have happened in the South Asian and black community, and inequalities in their health care, housing and social circumstances have to be addressed.
Noor Inayat Khan never disavowed her British, Asian, and European identities, while continuing to oppose fascism. Is it right to say that her fight was against an ideology rather than for nationalistic sentiment, as it is understood in a narrow sense today?
Noor came from a proud Indian family. Her father was a nationalist who told her she had the blood of Tipu Sultan in her veins. She believed in Indian independence and said so frankly to her officers at the Royal Air Force (RAF). At the same time, she was completely focused. She felt strongly that it was important to win this war, and offered her full support to Britain and France. After the war, she said she would return to backing Indian Independence. Her fight was against the occupation of France and against fascism. She also felt that if Indians helped the war effort and acted with gallantry, it may make Britain grant them their independence.
Has the Black Lives Matter movement been a tipping point for the UK to grapple with its colonial past?
It has definitely started a conversation. We have seen a few things happen very quickly. Stately homes in Britain, which are popular tourist attractions and are managed by the National Trust, have started thinking of how they will contextualise the objects on display and say that they were often looted from the colonies. The website of the Clive Museum in Wales has already changed the text. Oxford University has agreed to bring down the statue of Cecil Rhodes.
Other museums are also reconsidering how they will ‘decolonise’ the collections. The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has set up a committee to look at Imperial statues and road names and take a decision on them.
Who are some other relatively obscure war heroes, especially women, whose service to the UK hasn't got its due yet?
Noor Inayat Khan was probably the only one in active service in Europe. However, there were others who drove ambulances during the World War II, like Princess Indira of Kapurthala. Princess Indira also broadcast regularly on the BBC. Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, granddaughter of Maharajah Ranjit Singh of Punjab, nursed Indian troops during World War I, lifting the spirit of the injured Punjabi and Sikh soldiers.
What was your aim behind setting up the Noor Inayat Khan Memorial Trust? To what extent have you achieved your goals? What are your future plans?
After my book was published in 2006, I got many letters from readers thanking me for telling Noor’s story. Many wrote to me that there should be a memorial for her. So the idea came from my readers. One gentleman offered to write to the Prime Minister every day and wanted Noor to be on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square (which is left empty and has a rotating six-month exhibit). I felt a sense of responsibility. I felt I had to do it, as no one else would.
I set up the Noor Inayat Khan Memorial Trust to campaign for a memorial for Noor in London. There were memorials to her in France and Dachau, but there was nothing in England. Other SOE agents had blue plaques, murals and statues in London. I felt Noor’s story had been forgotten even though she was awarded the George Cross. It consumed two years of my life. I wrote hundreds of letters, lobbied MPs and peers, set up a fantastic team, and we went on a fund-raising drive. The memorial was unveiled in 2012 by Princess Anne. It is the first statue of an Indian woman in a public space in Britain, and it was a very proud day for all of us.
With the money left over, we organised a prize in her name to be given to a post-graduate student from SOAS. Five students have received the annual Noor Inayat Khan Memorial Prize of £1000. For me it was important to ensure that Noor’s story was remembered by the next generation. We also organised an annual lecture called the “Liberte" series and invited Vrinda Grover and Arundhati Roy to give these in London. We continued the campaign for the Blue Plaque. I think we’ve achieved a lot.
I regularly help museums with exhibitions on Noor. The British Museum has a display on her in their new South Asian gallery. This year the Commonwealth War Graves Commission launched the first digital exhibition on Noor at the RAF Memorial in Runnymede. It will be a permanent exhibition. Luckily, we could do it just before lockdown. Noor has even featured in a Doctor Who episode! So her story is now widely known. I will keep backing other campaigners as it is so important that our stories are told.