Neerja Bhanot, was a beautiful soul born on 7 September 1963 in India. She was an Indian purser for the airline Pan American World Airways and lost her life just two days before her 23rd birthday, trying to save passengers on Pan Am Flight 73. The plane where she was purser, was hijacked by terrorists during a stopover in Karachi, Pakistan, on 5 September 1986. She was shot dead while helping passengers escape through the emergency exits. Neerja became the youngest recipient of India’s highest peacetime gallantry, the Ashok Chakra Award, and also received several other accolades from the Governments of Pakistan and the United States. A bollywood movie based on her life was made in 2016 named Neerja.
Neerja Bhanot’s Early life
Neerja was born in Chandigarh, India, and brought up in Mumbai in a typical Punjabi family. Her father Harish Bhanot used to be a famous journalist. Her mother Rama Bhanot was a simple home maker. Neerja was the only sister of Akhil and Aneesh Bhanot, her brothers. She studied at Sacred Heart Senior Secondary School in Chandigarh. After they moved to Mumbai, she studied at Bombay Scottish School and then graduated from St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai. It was Mumbai where she started her modelling career. She was a huge fan of bollywood actor Rajesh Khanna and used dialogues from his movies quite often in her conversation.
Her Married life
Neerja Bhanot had an arranged marriage in March 1985 and went with her husband to Doha, Qatar. The marriage wasn’t a happy one. Her husband tortured and humiliated her for dowry. So Neerja escaped and returned to her parents’ home in Mumbai within two months.
After leaving her tyrant husband, Neerja started to focus her attention on her career. So she started to do some modelling first. Then she applied for a flight attendant job with Pan Am as in 1985 it decided to have an all Indian cabin crew for its Frankfurt to India routes. After being selected, she went to Miami for training as a flight attendant, but returned as a purser.
Neerja Bhanot was the senior flight purser on Pan Am Flight 73 flying from Mumbai to the United States. It was hijacked by four terrorists on 5 September 1986 at Karachi airport in Pakistan. The aircraft had 365 passengers and 13 crew members. The terrorists intended to take the plane to Cyprus as they wanted to get released the Palestinian prisoners in Cyprus. Neerja alerted the cockpit crew just as the hijackers boarded the plane. The plane was on the tarmac so the three-member cockpit crew of pilot, co-pilot and the flight engineer left the aircraft through an overhead hatch in the cockpit. Now Neerja was the senior most cabin crew member. She took charge of the situation inside the plane. The hijackers were part of the Abu Nidal Organization, a terrorist organization backed by Libya. They were targeting Americans. Soon after the terrorists boarded the plane, they identified an American citizen. They brutally dragged shot him dead and threw his body on to the tarmac. They then instructed Neerja to collect the passports of all the passengers so that they could identify other Americans as well. Neerja knowing their intention to kill Americans, with the help of her fellow attendants hid the passports of the remaining 43 Americans on board. They hid some passports some under a seat and the rest in a garbage bin.
After 17 hours, when the hijackers started to lose hope of any negotiation with the Pakistani government, they opened fire and set off explosives. Neerja very cleverly opened one of the airplane doors, and started helping the passengers get through it. If Neerja Bhanot wanted, she could have been the first one to jump out and save her own life when she opened the door, but she decided not to and instead helped the passengers escape. According to a surviving passenger,
“She was guiding the passengers to the emergency exit. That is when the terrorists were firing constantly fearing a commando attack. They saw Neerja relentlessly trying to help the passengers out and that is when they caught her by her ponytail and shot her point blank.”
Neerja was shot dead while she was shielding 3 American kids from gunfire by the terrorists. Out of 44 Americans, two were killed during this hijacking. A seven year old child on board, is now a captain for an airlines. He has stated that Neerja has been his inspiration, and that he owes every day of his life to her.
Awards and Recognition to Neerja Bhanot
Her loyalties to the passengers of the aircraft in distress will forever be a lasting tribute to the finest qualities of the human spirit.
– Ashok Chakra citation
Neerja Bhanot is famous all over the world as “the heroine of the hijack”. She became the youngest recipient of the Ashok Chakra Award, India’s highest gallantry award for bravery during peace time. She posthumously received multiple awards for her courage from the United States government, and the Tamgha-e-Pakistan from Pakistan, an award given for showing great human kindness. In 2004 the Indian Postal Service released a stamp commemorating her.
Neerja’s family set up the Neerja Bhanot Pan Am Trust with the insurance money and contribution from Pan Am. This trust gives two awards every year. One to a flight crew member, worldwide, who acts beyond the call of duty. The second one is the Neerja Bhanot Award, given to an Indian woman who faced social injustice bravely and helped other women in similar social distress. The award includes INR 1,50,000, a trophy and a citation.
Neerja Bhanot’s brother Aneesh Bhanot went to Washington, D.C., in 2005 to receive the “Justice for Crimes Award” awarded posthumously to his sister as part of the Annual Crime Rights Week at a ceremony held at the United States. In 2006, Neerja and the other Pan Am Flight 73 flight attendants and Pan Am’s flight director for Pakistan were awarded the Special Courage award by the United States Department of Justice.
On 2 July 2016, the Bharat Gaurav Award was conferred on her at a ceremony held at the House of Commons, UK Parliament in London, England.
Neerja will always be an example of bravery and love for humanity to everyone around the world. We wish there would be more people like her in this world to make it a beautiful place to live in. Love you Neerja.