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UK honour for Indian heroine

London, March 24: Noor-un-Nisa Inayat Khan, an Indian-origin woman who spied for Britain in occupied France during the Second World War and was captured, tortured and executed by the Germans, is being honoured by the Royal Mail with a special stamp issued tomorrow in her memory.

“I am absolutely thrilled — it’s a great honour for India and for Indian women,” commented London-based historian Kusoom Vadgama who “discovered” Noor while researching for a brochure she published in 1989 on the contribution of Indian soldiers to Britain’s war effort.

“She fought and died for somebody else’s freedom,” added Vadgama, the first Indian to draw attention to the story of Noor, who died aged 30 and would have turned 100 last January.

“I was searching for Indians involved in the war and stumbled across Noor. She was betrayed by someone from her own side.”

The Royal Mail said: “She was posthumously awarded the French Croix de Guerre and the British George Cross, one of only three women to receive the latter award for service during the Second World War.”

The George Cross has equal status with the Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest gallantry award, the only difference being that the VC is awarded only to those who come under enemy fire. A GC is awarded for “acts of the greatest heroism or of the most conspicuous courage in circumstances of extreme danger” that carry a 90 per cent chance of death.

In custody, Noor was uncooperative and gave no information. For 10 months, she was kept with shackles on her hands and feet before being executed by a shot to the back of the head. Her body was immediately burned in the crematorium.

An anonymous Dutch prisoner, emerging in 1958, revealed that Noor was cruelly beaten by a high-ranking SS officer named Wilhelm Ruppert before being shot.

According to the Royal Mail, which has wrongly compressed the name as “Noorunissa” Inayat Khan, she “became one of the silent heroes of the Second World War. With the code name ‘Madeleine’, she worked as a wireless officer for the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) in Paris during 1943, when the city was occupied by Nazi forces”.

It sums up the dramatic events of her life in one paragraph.

Noor “evaded capture far longer than expected in her role and continued to send important messages to London to aid the French Resistance. She was betrayed, arrested and interrogated, but she refused to give up her secrets. She was executed at Dachau by the Gestapo on 13 September 1944.”

It tells of her origins: “Born in Moscow to an (Indian) Sufi teacher (Hazrat Inayat Khan) and an American mother (Ameena Begum aka Ora Meena Ray Baker), and descended from the 18th-century Tipu Sultan of Mysore, Noorunissa Inayat Khan was educated in Paris.

“Escaping to England after the fall of France, she joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, then took one of the most dangerous postings in occupied territory. She maintained her views on non-violence by not carrying a weapon.

Lucknow-born film director Ahmed Jamal, who first heard of Noor in 1986-87 and immediately wanted to make a movie about her, said he took out a 10-year option on her 1952 biography, Madeleine, by British author Jean Overton Fuller.

Jamal never got to make his film but he told The Telegraph today: “Jean Overton Fuller met many of the people involved in Noor’s story. I first of all got hold of a French edition of the book and had to have it translated.

“It was an unheard of story — an Indian woman who gave her life for Britain. But she was very nationalistic. She said (that) if it had been a choice between Britain and India, she would have chosen India. After the war, she had intended to fight for Indian nationalism.”

Fuller’s book is now so rare that prices quoted today on Amazon were “from $510”.

The Royal Mail is also bringing out stamps commemorating nine other people with “remarkable lives” who were all born in 1914. They include the actors Kenneth More and Sir Alec Guinness and the poet Dylan Thomas.

Andrew Hammond, Royal Mail’s director of stamps and collectibles, explained the choices: “The ‘Remarkable Lives’ stamp issue creates a great sense of history, and captures both the achievement and endeavour of these exceptional people.”