Do your duty, come what may. Never tolerate injustice or compromise on your self-respect.
These are the guiding principles which 22 year Neerja Bhanot left for the world while smilingly embracing death to ensure that others lived. She defied the face of tyranny and terrorism and refused to be cowed down, opting instead to sacrifice her life for the benefit of humanity and mankind. She gave up her own life while saving the lives of hundreds of others during a Pan Am plane hijack in September, 1986.
Neerja was born in Chandigarh on September. 7, 1963 at the General Hospital, Sector 16. Her father, late Mr. Harish Bhanot, was a reputed journalist while her mother late Mrs. Rama Bhanot was a famous theatre and radio artist. She had two elder brothers, Akhil and Aneesh Bhanot
Neerja did her early schooling at Sacred Heart School, Sector 26, Chandigarh. She then shifted to Mumbai in 1974, as her father was transferred from Chandigarh to Mumbai. She completed her schooling from Bombay Scottish School, Mahim and her graduation from St. Xaviers College, Mahapalika Marg, Mumbai.
While in college, a leading magazine of Mumbai featured her as one of the prettiest faces of Mumbai and this brought in modelling offers for her. She went on to become a celebrated model for an array of products like Charmis, Bajaj Scooters, Amul, Chiragh Din, Paville, Modella … and many more. Life was full of success and sunshine for her.
The only dark patch in Neerja’s life was her marriage. Following an advertisement-based arranged marriage in 1985, she joined her husband in the Gulf. However, his family and he started pressurizing her to get money from her parents. Neerja was a woman of dignity and strength and refused to bend to the dowry demands. She returned home within two months. Her husband set humiliating conditions for her return to him which Neerja and her family refused to comply with. She decided to move on in life and joined Pan Am World Airways as a Flight Attendant.
Courage. Compassion. Commitment.
Immensely dedicated, Neerja made a responsible and committed flight attendant. During the initial training itself, Pan Am promoted her to the position of Flight Purser.
Neerja was the Senior Flight Purser on Pan Am 73 which took off from Bombay on September 5, 1986 to New York via Karachi and Frankfurt. The plane landed at Karachi airport at around 5 am.
A little later, a van drove up to the plane and 4 persons wearing Pakistan Police uniforms and armed with assault rifles, pistols, grenades and plastic explosive belts jumped out of the van and ran up the step ladder while firing in the air. Neerja was at the plane door waiting to welcome the passengers who were to board the aircraft from Karachi. Once the realization came to her that this was a hijack, she was able to pass on an emergency code to the pilot through the intercom. Through a hatch in the cockpit, the American flight crew – pilot, co-pilot and flight engineer- fled from the aircraft, leaving over 375 passengers and the Indian cabin crew at the mercy of the heavily armed terrorists. Setting aside all concern for her personal safety, Neerja identified herself to the terrorists as the crew member in-charge.
A long, tension-filled ordeal started. Yet, Neerja was a perfect picture of calm, confident leadership. She comforted the passengers, especially the elderly and small children. In an amazing act of courage and compassion for her fellow human beings, she hid the passports of the Americans, as the hijackers wanted to execute Americans.
After 17 hours, the hijackers opened fire and set off explosives. Acting quickly, Neerja opened the emergency door. If she wanted, she could have been the first to jump out , but she opted to stay back and helped many of the passengers escape. She gave her own life while shielding three American children from a hail of bullets of the terrorists.
Heroine of the hijack
Neerja was recognised internationally as ‘the heroine of the hijack’ and is the youngest recipient of the Ashoka Chakra, India’s highest civilian award for bravery. She was also awarded the Tamga-E-Insaniyat (Pakistan), Flight Safety Foundation Award (Japan) and Justice for Crimes Award (USA), among others.
Two chowks are named after her in Ghatkopar and Mahim in Mumbai and called the Neerja Bhanot Chowks, which were inaugurated by Amitabh Bachchan and Sonam Kapoor respectively. India Posts released a Postage Stamp on her, while the Indian Civil Aviation Ministry conferred an honour on her on February 18, 2010 on the occasion of the celebrations of the centenary of Indian Aviation.
A feature film ‘Neerja’ was made on her starring Sonam Kapoor as Neerja and Shabana Azmi as Rama Bhanot, Neerja’s mother.
Panjab University rnamed its International Women’s Hostel (Dorm) as the Neerja Bhanot Hall.
Neerja Bhanot Pan Am Trust
The Bhanot Family have set up a Trust – the Neerja Bhanot Pan Am Trust – which is keeping the memory of Neerja alive by reflecting, in its objectives and actions, three main and basic features of her character:
1. Do your duty, come what may
2. Never tolerate any injustice AND
3. Never compromise on your self-respect.
The Trust has instituted two main Awards of Rs. 1,50,000 each:
Award A (Rs. 1,50,000): This goes to an Indian woman who, when subjected to social injustice like dowry, desertion etc., faces the situation with guts and grit AND then makes a success of life by assisting other women in similar social distress.
Award B (Rs. 1,50,000): The Trust honours an airline Crew Member, on a world wide basis, who acts beyond the call of duty in a difficult situation.
Nominations, on plain paper, in English or Hindi, can be sent by anybody (including self-nominations) with as much supporting evidence as possible. All eligible nominations are thoroughly screened and back-checks done. There is NO nomination or any other sort of fees. The Trust does NOT accept any donations, whatsoever.
Neerja Bhanot Pan Am Trust
3727, Sector 46 C, Chandigarh 160047