Aug 27, 2014

Did Noor Inayat Khan, super secret agent during World War 2, ever visit Delhi?

R.V. Smith
The Hindu
August 24, 2014

Perhaps we’ll never find out, but the story of her father, Inayat Khan, and his legacy in Delhi, is intriguing in its own way

In this time of World War anniversaries few are aware that Noor Inayat Khan, super secret agent, had a close link with a Delhi shrine. And thereby hangs a tale that goes back to Tipu Sultan, who died fighting the British at Seringapatnam during the Fourth Mysore War in 1799. Long after that, one of his descendants founded a Sufi order in Delhi. Hazrat Inayat Khan, great-grandson of Tipu, was a man of many tastes who went abroad in 1920 to give music concerts, having become a musician of note early in life. He was initiated into Sufism by Sheikh Abu Hashim Madani but, during a visit to the West, wed an American woman, Ora Ray Baker (renamed Ameena) who gave birth to four children. According to Sadia Dehlvi, Inayat Khan died in 1927 and was buried in Delhi, though he had settled down with his wife in Suresness, a Parisian suburb. His son, Pir Vilayat Khan succeeded him, whose successor was Pir Zia Khan, head of the Sufi Order International.

Inayat Khan’s daughter, Noor Inayat Khan (just as famous as Mata Hari) was a British Special Operations Agent (Madeline) during World War II. She became the first female radio operator to be sent by the Allies into occupied France to aid the French Resistance (under Gen Charles de Gaulle). Captured by the Germans, Noor was executed in Sept 1944 when she was 30 and was posthumously given the highest civilian award (George Cross) by the British Govt. in 1949. Recently a special postage stamp was issued and a statue installed in her memory in Britain.

Dr. A. Ali, who long ago organised lectures in Delhi by Pir Vilayat Khan on behalf of Hamdard, remembers him as a handsome man with European features, who had a mastery over written and spoken English and hardly looked like an Indian Sufi divine. Incidentally, his half-brother was an American Yogi. The message he preached (like his father) was that one doesn’t have to embrace Islam to become a Sufi. Hazrat Inayat Khan had defined Sufism as a religious philosophy of love, harmony and beauty for all. His dargah is not far from the one of Hazrat Nizamuddin. Situated in an “elegant modern structure”, it is quite unlike the usual conception of a dargah. Some call it the “white man’s dargah” as most of the visitors are foreigners, who stay in the rooms attached to it and attend cultural events hosted by Dr. Fareeda of the West Indies.

There are many in Delhi and elsewhere who do not subscribe to Inayat Khan’s philosophy but still visit the dargah on Fridays when qawwalis are held. This is a departure from tradition as qawwalis are generally held on Thursdays at sufi dargahs.

Hazrat Inayat Khan preceded Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and Osho Rajneesh in popularising Eastern philosophy abroad (to which Pandit Ravi Shankar also made his contribution) and the Beatles and Mia Farrow were among the devotees who came to India. Somehow Inayat Khan did not attract much attention in Delhi, known as the “Threshold of the 22 Khwajas” or saints.

Be that as it may, it cannot be denied that the Sufi Pir’s daughter played a role in countering the Nazi dream of world domination, after trying her hand as a writer of children’s stories and a stint in Paris as an artist. Did Noor Inayat Khan visit Delhi? No one is sure as there is no record of it, but Khushwant Singh, while once commenting on her, thought it was quite likely she did.

For this he cited a member of the Nizami family of Pirs who escorted a pretty westernised young woman to the shrine of Inayat Khan on a cold, bleak, afternoon. Asked for her name she said it reflected the Noor of the saint and disappeared with a wave of her hand. If she was really Noor Inayat, then the incident could have taken place before the war broke though it is more likely that she came as a teenager during her father’s funeral. Those were the days when people came in ships via the Suez Canal, landed in Calcutta or Bombay and then made their way to Delhi by train.

But imagine Noor Inayat arriving at Old Delhi station all by herself later, which in itself was a courageous act.

It was of the likes of her that Jawaharlal Nehru said that such heroines gave the lie to the belief that Eastern women were not meant to lead but to be led. One thinks of this when one visits Inayat Khan’s dargah on a wet Friday evening.