In the fading ‘light’ of the Empire: Race, Power and Shifting Identities
Updated: May 22
By Esha Meher
Gordon Square shone brighter than usual. The feign winter sun had joined the protesters in shouting slogans around a statue. They cheered and clapped. Petitions were passed. The icy winds did their job. But the collective spirit had decided to outshine the English Winter. People were adamant. They would not leave till the Government put her face on the new fifty-pound bill. Like all eminent persons in history, they would insist on a blue plaque being fixed to the wall of her erstwhile residence. She was an important part of history and they would not let the world forget so easily. Pedestrians looked with indifference. They were used to protests around SOAS. ‘What in the name of Christ, do they preach in those classes!’ The Government had done its bit. Commissioned a statute or more precisely, a bust, to be made in the middle of Central London. Adequate honours had already been bestowed. One must not forget, she was at the end of the day, a humble subject of a great nation. Valour might have been in her veins, but so was subjugation to the will of the crown. She was a subject, she could live or die, she would never be a citizen of the Great British Empire.
Citizenship is a coveted jewel in today’s world. It stands for identity, protection, shared history and a promise of a common future. It also can stand for a bloodied past, borrowed rights and sometimes the colour of your skin. A hierarchy first set by the Greek city states and later raised and repackaged by America Civil Rights movement was the perfect ingredient of this academic euphoria inducing drug! Academics post the Second World War were enthralled by nation states and relations within it. And the treatment of political minorities was its own cherry on the cake. So, who are these people? From the borders of the Pakistani Frontier Province to the Arab heartlands.Isolated groups on the fringes of governance. With aspirations and or this abstract demand of something called self determination. They are left to starve. Often in villages with the poorest roads and water supply, broken coffers and dishrivelled conscience. You smell treason in the air. But why you ask? Why are they different? Why are people with the same weapon and the same battle destined to different deaths. You could be a soldier,a mercenary or a mere hitman. Their fate often is decided by finer factors, most inherited at birth.
Noor Inayat Khan died in the hands of the Nazis in 1944. She breathed her last in the Dachau concentration camp pronouncing the words, ‘liberte’ as she collapsed to her death. Noor was the daughter of a British subject, HazratInayat Khan of the Sufi order. Descending from the line of Mysore’s ruler, Tipu Sultan, she was a princess in her own right. She was born in Moscow to an American mother who later adopted the Sufi way of life and her Sufi master father. She was a musician and a poet who was known for a reticent way of life. Her British supervisors in the Women’s Auxiliary Air force training camp were rather vocal about her inadequacies for the task. They recorded multiple instances of her leaving wireless codes carelessly around the place. They made no secret of the fact that she bore a specific antipathy for weapons. But her sharp memory and French tongue took her to the field any way. And as they knew, human life was cheap. Some lives cheaper than the other.
The British were always apprehensive of admitting a woman into their forces, especially at a time where almost all radio operators were male. But more than the gender wall, there stood the wall of her not so credible lineage. How could they be sure of her loyalty to the Crown when her own ancestors were fighting a battle of freedom. After receiving a rejection letter to her offer of enlistment, Noor wrote back. She was vociferous in her writings, claiming every right to fight for the empire on account of her part American heritage as well as prolonged residence in the United Kingdom. The authorities caved in and inducted her. Historical records corroborate her versions of bravery as she single handedly ran the radio operations in the whole of Paris. She was Special Operations Executive (SOE)’s first female undercover radio operator in France. But as life would have it, barely a week after Noor entered Paris sometime in 1943, virtually all of SOE’s radio operators in the city were caught in a sweep by the Gestapo (the secret police of Nazi Germany). She was offered extradition, but she refused to leave France knowing how crucial her job had then become. At that point of time, her allegiance and duty towards the British army trumped every other identity that she might have nursed. The duty of a soldier is what beckoned her, and that is what she performed. For three exact months, Noor changed locations and disguises every day, moving from one place to another and sending information from the whole region to London. She was eventually caught after being betrayed by a colleague who acted as a double agent to the Gestapo. Not one to go down quietly, the feisty woman fought her captors with all she had: punching, kicking and even biting. The Gestapo apparently needed six burly men to hold her down as they arrested her! She attempted escape within hours of capture and soon followed that with a second attempt. She was treated as one of the most valued yet difficult prisoners of the Nazis who had to be chained and brutally tortured during interrogations. Yet, not a word of information fell from her.
The woman who was known as a frail, delicate and scatterbrained trainee had lasted undercover in Paris for months. She remained undetected for a period thrice as long as an average wireless operator of the Allied forces. She withstood one after the other grueling interrogation sessions despite having broken down in her practice ones back in England. England, too, was surprised by her seemingly fragile soldier.
Noor’s Achilles’ heel was ironically in her gifted memory. While her superiors in England trusted her retention abilities, she lacked the confidence to do so. She had against advice retained copies of the wireless codes which fell into Nazi hands. The Nazis continued to impersonate her and send messages to Britain paving the way for the death of multiple British agents who flew into their arms following fraudulent radio messages. It was once agreed between Noor and her trainer that she would never send a signal which was longer than 16 characters. The day a message worth those many characters would be transmitted, her supervisors should understand that the network is no longer secure. Before long, that mistake was made. The Nazis unaware of this unwritten rule punched in 16 character messages multiple times, only to be ignored by their British counterparts. Human life is valuable, but some lives are valued more than others. Noor was just not one of them.
Noor was awarded the George Cross posthumously, but she remained short of walking the path of a national martyr. She was always an aide of the Empire who died in the line of duty. For the many women of colour in Britain today, she was one the first. Yet when they walk across the corridors of power, clinking their wine glasses and curtseying to the Queen, they know they are different. The mirror is a habitual liar in Britain.
For people who look alike do not share a history let alone a sense of kinship. It took seventy five years of immigration for the first wave of people to realize that their reflection off shiny surfaces speak of a story that began centuries ago. A human being’s struggle for life is often rooted in their identity and its constituent elements. Race, class, religion, language are elements to die for. But the element overpowering them all, is the quest for power. For the ones who have tasted primal victory, all forms of identity wither before the hand of power. For years as women in Britain climbed the stairs of politics, and raised their claim for equality, they knew they were inching towards victory. They too would join the victors in yielding the same exclusionary hand of power in keeping the glass castle high and its boundaries higher. Today, in Hannovarian England, where the Queen too has alien roots, one wonders if a Caucasian gentleman had gasped for breath in Dachau or died defending national secrets, if he too would have to make do with a ceramic bust in a picturesque location. Noor was royalty. Much the same as a certain Prince Dwarkanath Tagore, who had the comfort of an audience with the Monarch multiple times before choosing to embrace death in the land of his colonizer. Tagore though not glorified in death, had the prestige and privileges befitting his status during his lifetime, bestowed by the same land who struggled to overlook the ‘shortcomings’ of Noor’s descent.
The Government has officially declared that Noor Inayat Khan would not be the new face of the fifty pound bill. The bill which is scheduled to release in 2020 will possibly bear the face of a scientist who in all likelihood will neither be a woman of colour nor a muslim. In the campaigns for her memory, her faith has always formed a recurrent theme. Hers is a life which is not only an inspiration to Muslim women but an example of how women of the faith lived and held faith. Her figure may not be on official government insignia but her contributions to Britain and the world are there to remain.
Amanda Prahl, The Life of Noor Inayat Khan, World War II: Spy Heroine, ThoughtCo, available at https://www.thoughtco.com/noor-inayat-khan-biography-4582812
Amie Tsang, ‘Overlooked no more: Indian Princess and British Spy’, The New York Times, 2018, available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/28/obituaries/noor-inayat-khan-overlooked.html
BBC UK archives, available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/inayat_khan_noor.shtml
Helena Horton, ‘ Ministers back campaign to put Noor Inayat Khan on 50 pounds note’, The Telegraph UK, 2018, available at https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/10/17/ministers-back-campaign-putnoor-inayat-khan-50-note/
HerpreetKaurGrewal, ‘Noor Inayat Khan: Remembering Britain’s Muslim War Heroin’, The Guardian, UK, 2018, available at: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/the-womens-blog-with-jane-martinson/2012/oct/23/noor-inayat-khan-britains-muslim-heroine
The British Library Collection, available at: https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/photograph-of-noor-inayat-khan
ArunaChakravarti, Jorasanko, Harper Collins, 2013
ShrabaniBasu, Spy Princess: Life of Noor Inayat Khan, Sutton 2006.
Adrishya: Story of Noor Inayat Khan