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World War II spy first Indian-origin woman to get memorial plaque in London

Britain’s World War II spy, Noor Inayat Khan, on Friday became the first Indian-origin woman to be honored with a memorial Blue Plaque at her former family home in central London.

The Blue Plaque scheme, run by the English Heritage charity, honors notable people and organizations connected with particular buildings across London.

Khan’s plaque has gone up at 4 Taviton Street in Bloomsbury, where she lived before she left for Nazi-occupied France in 1943 as an undercover radio operator for Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE).

Noor, the daughter of Indian Sufi saint Hazrat Inayat Khan and a descendant of the 18th century Mysore ruler Tipu Sultan, went on to be killed at Dachau concentration camp in 1944, having revealed nothing to her captors, not even her real name.

“When Noor Inayat Khan left this house on her last mission, she would never have dreamed that one day she would become a symbol of bravery,” said Shrabani Basu, historian and author of ‘Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan’.

“She was an unlikely spy. As a Sufi she believed in non-violence and religious harmony. Yet when her adopted country needed her, she unhesitatingly gave her life in the fight against Fascism,” said Basu, who formally unveiled the commemorative plaque in a small ceremony to be broadcast on social media, given the coronavirus social distancing requirements.

“It is fitting that Noor Inayat Khan is the first woman of Indian-origin to be remembered with a Blue Plaque. As people walk by, Noor’s story will continue to inspire future generations. In today’s world, her vision of unity and freedom is more important than ever,” added Basu, who is also founder-chair of the Noor Inayat Khan Memorial Trust (NIKMT), which installed a sculpture of Noor in nearby Gordon Square in 2012.

The SOE was an independent British Secret Service set up by Britain’s war-time Prime Minister Winston Churchill in 1940 and Noor became its first female radio operator sent into Nazi-occupied France. She was posthumously awarded the George Cross (GC) for her bravery in 1949.

Anna Eavis, Curatorial Director at English Heritage, said: “We’re so pleased to be able to continue unveiling our 2020 blue plaques with this virtual ceremony after a very quiet few months.

“I am particularly delighted to start with Noor Inayat Khan, whose courage was unfaltering even in the face of such extreme danger.” The new plaque reads: “Noor Inayat Khan GC, 1914-1944, SOE Agent codename ‘Madeleine’ stayed here”.

Mahatma Gandhi and BR Ambedkar are among some of the other Indian-origin historical figures to be honoured with similar Blue Plaques at buildings associated with their stay in London.

Noor joins the likes of Ada Lovelace, the pioneer of computing, and Rosalind Franklin, the scientist who helped discover DNA, to make up only 14 per cent of over 950 such Blue Plaques celebrating women across London.

English Heritage said that while the figure is still unacceptably low, its ongoing “Plaques for Women” campaign has seen a dramatic rise in the number of public nominations for women since it launched in 2016.

Later this year, the charity plans to unveil plaques to Christine Granville, a remarkable secret agent of the Second World War, and Barbara Hepworth, one of the 20th century’s greatest artists.

“Nominations are the lifeblood of the London blue plaques scheme and if we are to continue to see a significant increase in the number of blue plaques for women, we need more female suggestions,” the charity said.