She spied for Britain during World War II and was eventually caught and killed by the Nazis, but Noor Inayat Khan, a descendant of Tipu Sultan – an 18th-century Muslim ruler of Mysore state – remained in near anonymity for decades.
Her contribution to the war came to light after author Shrabani Basu wrote Noor’s biography, Spy Princess, in 2006.
This year, Britain awarded her with the Blue Plaque – the first Indian origin woman to be honoured with the title for her sacrifices as a Special Operations Executive (SOE) in France. She was captured by the Gestapo – the official secret police of Nazi Germany – in Paris and taken to Germany where she was executed in 1944.
In 2014, a stamp was issued in her honour and there are reports that her face may soon appear on British coins.
For her valiant efforts, Noor was posthumously awarded the George Cross, the United Kingdom’s highest civilian award, in 1949 and the French Croix de Guerre, a military honour awarded by France in 1946.
A biopic, A Call To Spy, released on October 2, pays tribute to the work of three female British spies during the second World War, including Noor, who was also a children stories writer and pacifist.
“She was at such an interesting juncture of being a pacifist and also her inactivity, of not doing anything, could have consequences for the war,” said Apte, who starred in the hit Netflix series Lust Stories, for which she received an Emmy nomination for Best Actress.
Shrabani, who founded a memorial in 2012 in the name of Noor, told Al Jazeera from London that Khan did not have to fight the war, but did so for her core principles of “non-violence, universality of religions, fighting against fascism and occupation”.
Prior to the war, Noor lived a largely peaceful life and grew up to become a prolific children stories writer, contributing regularly to the local French radio and magazines.
Her most notable work included Twenty Jataka Tales, an English translation of stories about the reincarnation of Buddha.
Noor was born on January 1, 1914, in the Russian capital Moscow. Her father, Inayat Khan, a musician and Sufi preacher, and mother, Amina Begum (previously Ora Ray Baker). The family moved to England shortly after World War I broke out the same year.
After facing increased surveillance from the British for his pro-India views, Inayat would again relocate the family in 1920 to Paris, where Noor lived with her three younger siblings until the age of 26. Her great-great-great-grandfather Tipu Sultan died fighting against British rule in India in 1799.
After the Nazis captured France in 1940, Noor’s life came to an abrupt halt, and she fled for a second time to Britain along with thousands of other French residents.
Immediately after her arrival, she joined the war effort, signing up for the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, the female auxiliary for the UK’s Royal Air Force, as a wireless operator – a job Shrabani said she excelled at.
“To Noor, the ideology of the Nazis and their pogrom against the Jews was fundamentally repulsive and opposed to all the principles of religious harmony that she been brought up with by her father,” Shrabani wrote in Spy Princess.
Khan’s father Inayat was a prominent preacher of Sufism – a mystical practice of Islam.
According to Shrabani’s Spy Princess, Inayat was a firm believer in non-violence and the oneness of all religions, concepts which Noor internalised growing up. Her father died in 1927 during a trip to India, leaving 13-year-old Noor, the oldest child, to help her mother raise her siblings.
“From a young age, Khan was already someone who was always very intrinsically selfless and self-giving,” her nephew and leader of the Inayati Order, Pir Zia Inayat Khan, told Al Jazeera.
Noor always stood up for those who were subjugated, Pir Zia added, no matter what their background was.
“She was willing to make any sacrifice for the oppressed. Despite not being British, she served their cause, and would’ve stood for Indian independence after as well,” he added.