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Noor Inayat Khan, GC

[ by Charles Cameron -- east, west, music, espionage, pacifism, war, the Resistance, the Nazis, Dachau, and exceptional gallantry ]
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A Muslim woman — born in Moscow of princely Indian paternal descent, her mother an American from Albuquerque, her father a great North Indian classical musician and Sufi master of pacifist leanings…
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Noor Inayat Khan was a student of Western classical music in pre-War Paris under the great Nadia Boulanger, escaped the oncoming Nazis and made it across the channel to England, where she told a British officer during a recruitment interview that she would indeed support Indian independence from Britain after the war — but that defeating Hitler took precedence and she would gladly fight for the British…

She thus became the first female radio operator sent by the British Special Operations Executive into Nazi-occupied France, where she worked courageously as a vital link between the French Resistance and Churchill‘s London until she was finally betrayed, imprisoned, and finally executed by firing squad in Dachau.

After the war, the British awarded her the highest civilian award for bravery, the George Cross, and France the Croix de Guerre.

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Yesterday’s Guardian reports:

On Thursday afternoon, in a corner of Bloomsbury, Princess Anne unveiled Britain’s first memorial to an Asian woman. The bust is of Noor Inayat Khan, a woman who was a pioneer in so many things: an Indian princess who was also a gifted harpist; a Sufi who wrote Buddhist fables for children; an anti-imperialist who spied for the British empire – and the first female radio operator sent into Nazi-occupied France.

Her Twenty Jataka Tales is available here.
Shrabani Basu‘s biography of Noor Inayat Khan is here.

I raise a virtual toast to Noor Inayat Khan.

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h/t David Foster at Chicago Boyz.

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18 Responses to “Noor Inayat Khan, GC”

  1. Lexington Green Says:

    A true hero.  

  2. Charles Cameron Says:

    Indeed.

  3. Michael Says:

    Saw Muslims wearing their Poppy (http://www.britishlegion.org.uk/support-us/) with pride today (some for the first time).
    .
    Noor’s legacy? Rally together a nation in respectful mourning. Well done, old gal…

  4. Madhu Says:

    “If so, it would not be the first time that India has done so. Western analysts, some British excepted, seem not to appreciate two historical facts: that the Indian armed forces contributed significantly to Allied efforts in the 20th century’s two world wars; and that India’s British Raj was the main peacekeeper in the Indian Ocean littoral and beyond. And it is not just the West that is ignorant of the security legacy of the British Raj; India’s own post-colonial political class deliberately induced a collective national amnesia about the country’s rich pre-independence military traditions. Its foreign policy establishment still pretends that India’s engagement with the world began on August 15, 1947.”
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    http://www.the-american-interest.com/article.cfm?piece=803
    .
    I don’t entirely agree with some of that article but it fits into my general theme around here that much of the history of that region told by the US and some of its Western allies (and India even) is babyish and fails to detail the immense complexity of the situation.
    .
    And this had an impact on our Afghanistan campaign in many, many ways. Well, it’s a theory and I continue to think it has some value. 

  5. Madhu Says:

    Have family stories about someone fighting in Burma, thought to be lost in the fighting and dead, showed up some years later in the village, and went on as before, just like that.
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    Lots of stories like that, all mixed up, and not very well documented. Proud of the effort, still unhappy about the specific treatment, like poor uniforms and food compared to other soldiers fighting for the same cause.
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    Amazing woman. 

  6. Charles Cameron Says:

    Hi Madhu:
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    Just yesterday I was reading a forthcoming book about Monte Cassino, and noticed the following:

    To this day, few realise that the Indian subcontinent contributed the largest volunteer army of any in the Second World War.  Over 2.5 million Indian men and women volunteered for service in the Allied forces. Over 100,000 served in Italy, the fourth largest contingent, after British, French and US forces, in three complete infantry groups, the 4th, 8th and 10th Indian Infantry Divisions and the 43rd Gurkha Independent Infantry Brigade. Of that number 5,782 would rest forever in Italian soil, and over half the remainder, mostly aged between nineteen and twenty-two, would be casualties.

    The book is Peter Caddick-Adams, Monte Casino: Ten Armies in Hell

  7. Dr Anurakshat Gupta Says:

    Hi
    .
    It is indeed true ….. India did contribute the largest VOLUNTEER army of both wars. There are some amazing memorials around Ypres in Belgium including one at Menin Gate to the efforts of Indians. I would recommend a visit to the location where Sepoy Khudadad Khan became the first Indian to win the Victoria Cross too. Brilliant stuff…but amnesia hit India absolutely oblivious to these heroes.

  8. Charles Cameron Says:

    Greetings, Dr Gupta:
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    As the great-grandson of a holder of the Victoria Cross myself, I salute Sepoy Khudadad Khan, VC.  “At the going down of the sun and in the morning / We will remember them.”

  9. Michael Moore Says:

    English father, born in 1898 Burma, spoke Hindi before English; the Burmese always called us the ‘white Indians’ – some ethnic tribes still do.
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    Served in Mespot., in WWI and, decorated, returned to serve in the Imperial Colonial Services, Burma, as he found his own Englishmen in Blighty ‘too cold’ and uncaring of their elders.
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    Though he said little of soldiering, most of Dad’s bedtime stories were unlike anything I’ve ever heard anyone else tell and I’d lie awake after them thinking what a great adventure of a life he must have had.
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    Died in 1975, in Rangoon, before I had the chance to ask him more about this period of history. It was only when I listened to Oxford’s Michael Howard, on Edwardian England, in 1981, that I found the missing pieces.

  10. Madhu Says:

    To all:
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    These are all really interesting comments. Michael Moore, that is a wonderful story about your Dad! Sometime back, I found an online site about the C-B-I Theater and it was mostly family remembrances about fathers, grandfathers, the things saved from that time:
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    http://cbi-theater.home.comcast.net/~cbi-theater/menu/cbi_home.html
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    The American government books on planning might be interesting for some readers and writers here, especially you J. Scott!
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    And because I am interested in medical stories:
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    “Richard Beard, an Army psychologist assigned to the 142nd General Hospital in Calcutta, dealt daily with emotional trauma. While American and British soldiers hacked their way through dense tropical forests to build the supply route, Beard immersed himself in the internal jungles of those he treated.A pillar to the men he served, Beard was an astute listener and observer, pleased to be playing his part. But his own pillar was his wife, Reva, teaching school half a world away in Findlay, Ohio. In daily letters to Reva, he poured out not only his observations of life in India but also his own longing and passions, and the unfolding drama of war, in painfully exquisite detail tempered with tenderness and humor.”
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    http://www.amazon.com/Calcutta-Love-World-Letters-Richard/dp/0896724689

  11. Madhu Says:

    A movie is being planned:
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    “Filmmakers Tabrez Noorani and Zafar Hai are bringing the story of “spy princess” Noor Inayat Khan on the big screen. The latter says it is an “international story” with an “Indian soul”.
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    The uncle-nephew duo of Hai and Noorani have acquired the rights of London-based Indian journalist-turned-author Shrabani Basu’s book ‘Spy Princess, The Life of Noor Inayat Khan’ to adapt it on big screen. While Noorani is based in Los Angeles, Hai is in Mumbai.”
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    http://movies.ndtv.com/movie_story.aspx?Section=Movies&ID=275038&subcatg=&keyword=Hollywood&nid=275038 

  12. Michael Moore Says:

    Thank you for this, Madhu. I will make time to get round to looking at Beard’s letters (being a psychologist, myself, it will make for an interesting few hours’ read).
    .
    A story I must share with you on WW2 Burma, is one that paints the Japanese in a very different light to their post-war demonisation.
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    I was getting some skis in Aviemore, Scotland, in 1980. The middle-aged man over the counter took one look at me and said: “Are you Karen?” (The Karens are a Burmese ethnic minority in Burma, from which my mother hailed.)
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    While I said I was, my answer must have expressed the surprise I felt as very few people get the country right, let alone the exact racial background, when they meet me. That surprise soon vanished when he said: “Your people saved my life during the war!”
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    He then proceeded (for the next hour) to tell tales, including of how he was saved (from being captured) by the Karens, how he shot fellow British Army soldiers who had deserted and were looting the stores while the Japanese advanced towards them, how he got so dark in the Burmese sun that the Japs thought he was a local Indian when they passed him by at a distance but, above all, how he mostly hid in the jungle with a small squad and harried the adversary until war’s end.
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    “After de-mob, we met up with someone we lost, when we had to leave him behind, wounded,” he added, “and were stunned to see him fat and healthy!” “I got captured,” said his brother-in-arms, “but when the Japanese realised that we were only a small squad but had fought so bravely against them, they tended to my wounds, shipped me off to Japan and treated me with honour”.
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    The whole ski shop was silent.
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    After all, it’s not every day that a story like that is told and, one day, they may well make a film of this episode in history, where demonisation is the last thing with which any race will be tarred…

  13. Charles Cameron Says:

    Michael:
    .
    As J Scott Shipman says, that’s a “MUST READ comment by @Integrity_Psych!”

  14. Michael Moore Says:

    Thanks, all, for your feedback. The story seems to have garnered much interest and attention.
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    Imagine, though, that I was only at the ski shop to get a pair of skies and was so apologetic to the driver who was patiently waiting for me beside the counter.
    .
    When we left, I turned and said how sorry I was for the delay, “Bl*%dy interesting, Mike,” he replied. “You should have let him continue for another hour”. Every time I tell this story, I get a similar reaction.
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    I expect it’s not only the C-B-I theatre that has such unusual tales. Real …and astonishing.

  15. Michael Moore Says:

    Let’s go back to Paris, during WW2, now, where my aunt, from Pegu, Burma, was in a line for new ID cards …under the watchful eyes of the newly-arrived Gestapo.
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    “Du!” pointed the smart, black-leather coated man. She walked over with my uncle. “Hier!” said the officer, now pointing to an entry on the card on the table, which read “Familien Name”.
    .
    “Oelschlager” said my uncle. “Deutscher?” asked the officer, almost relaxing with a half smile, but when he heard my uncle was Swiss, he spat on the floor. A neutral! Disgusting! So, back to the urgent business at hand …can’t relax. OK, birthplace? He gave the town and canton.
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    The officer was starting to talk fast, now, wanting this couple processed as quickly as possible. Country? Switzerland!
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    And madam’s birthplace? (My aunt was of mixed race and looked more Indian than English.) “Pegu” chipped in my uncle. Country? Switzerland!
    .
    Aunt Muriel Oelschlager spent the rest of the war free of concentration camps (where she would have been sent as she was British Burmese by birth) with a Gestapo-endorsed ID card telling all and sundry that she came from Pegu, Switzerland (you know, that part of mountainous Europe known for people with dark skin…)!
     
     
     

  16. Madhu Says:

    @ Michael Moore
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    I’ve found more than one site dedicated to family stories and memories of the sort of thing discussed in the thread. Here is one example:
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    http://www.indianmemoryproject.com/
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    I’ve only looked at one or two posts so I don’t know that  much about the site. May be of interest to readers here at zenpundit.
    .
    Also, of immense interest to me and shoring up my whining commentary about so much still to study and learn about World War II and Partition:
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    “The sheer size and influence of the British Indian Army, and its major role in the Allied War effort between 1939 and 1945 on behalf of a country from which it was seeking independence, maintains its fascination as a subject for a wide variety of historians. This volume presents a range of papers examining the Indian Army experience from the outbreak of world war in 1939 to the partition of India in 1947. With contributions from many of those at the forefront of the study of the Indian Army and Commonwealth history, the book focuses upon a period of Indian Army history not well covered by modern scholarship. As such it makes a substantial contribution across a range of subject areas, presenting a compendium of chapters examining Indian Army participation in the Second World War from North Africa to Burma, plus a variety of other topics including the evolution of wartime training, frontier operations, Churchill and the Indian Army, the Army’s role in the development of post-war British counterinsurgency practice, and of particular note, several chapters examining aspects of Partition in 1947. As such, the book offers a fascinating insight into one of the most important yet least understood military forces of the twentieth century. It will be of interest not only to those seeking a fuller understanding of past campaigns, but also to those wishing to better understand the development and ethos of the present day military forces of the Indian subcontinent.” 
    .
    Amazon blurb to 
    The Indian Army, 1939-47: Experience and Development  (Alan Jeffreys (Editor), Patrick Rose (Editor). See, I’m not making things up entirely about how much we still don’t know about a period that we keep telling ourselves explains definitively how things are in that part of the world today.
    .
    :) 
     

  17. Michael Moore Says:

    My deepest thanks to you for posting this, Madhu, which I have only now managed to read/catch up; family commitments have otherwise taken up most of my time.
    .
    Please can you continue to search for similar sites and post here. It will be of immense interest to me and, quite possibly to many others who read this site (some of whom may well wish to post their own message of encouragement)!

  18. Madhu Says:

    You are most welcome. Here are some other references which are not quite in that line but might be of interest:
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    “Comrades at Odds explores the complicated Cold War relationship between the United States and the newly independent India of Jawaharlal Nehru from a unique perspective-that of culture, broadly defined. In a departure from the usual way of doing diplomatic history, Andrew J. Rotter chose culture as his jumping-off point because, he says, “Like the rest of us, policymakers and diplomats do not shed their values, biases, and assumptions at their office doors. They are creatures of culture, and their attitudes cannot help but shape the policy they make.” To define those attitudes, Rotter consults not only government documents and the memoirs of those involved in the events of the day, but also literature, art, and mass media. “An advertisement, a photograph, a cartoon, a film, and a short story,” he finds, “tell us in their own ways about relations between nations as surely as a State Department memorandum does.”While expanding knowledge about the creation and implementation of democracy, Rotter carries his analysis across the categories of race, class, gender, religion, and culturally infused practices of governance, strategy, and economics.Americans saw Indians as superstitious, unclean, treacherous, lazy, and prevaricating. Indians regarded Americans as arrogant, materialistic, uncouth, profane, and violent. Yet, in spite of these stereotypes, Rotter notes the mutual recognition of profound similarities between the two groups; they were indeed “comrades at odds.” ”
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    http://www.amazon.com/Comrades-Odds-United-States-1947-1964/dp/080148460X
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    “Dennis Merrill examines the origins and implementation of U.S. economic assistance programs in India from independence in 1947 to the height of John F. Kennedy’s “development decade” in 1963. As the Cold War spread to the Third World in the late 1940s and 1950s, American policymakers tried to use economic aid to draw neutral India into the Western camp. Citing the country as the “world’s largest democracy,” the Americans hoped to establish India as a showcase for American@-sponsored development and a counterweight to the Communist model in the People’s Republic of China.” 
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    http://www.amazon.com/Bread-Ballot-Economic-Development-1947-1963/dp/0807857440/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1359385830&sr=1-1&keywords=bread+and+the+ballot
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    “Focusing on the two tumultuous decades framed by Indian independence in 1947 and the Indo-Pakistani war of 1965, The Cold War on the Periphery explores the evolution of American policy toward the subcontinent. McMahon analyzes the motivations behind America’s pursuit of Pakistan and India as strategic Cold War prizes. He also examines the profound consequences — for U.S. regional and global foreign policy and for South Asian stability — of America’s complex political, military, and economic commitments on the subcontinent.” 
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    http://www.amazon.com/Cold-War-Periphery-Robert-McMahon/dp/0231082274/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1359385885&sr=1-1&keywords=cold+war+at+the+periphery 
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    I’ve got more in this line and will add as I have time. I may add to another thread too. 

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