2004 Indian postage stamp
|Died||5 September 1986 (aged 22)|
|Cause of death||Gunshot wound|
|Known for||Pan Am Flight 73|
Neerja Bhanot, Ashoka Chakra (7 September 1963 – 5 September 1986) was an Indian head purser who died while saving passengers on Pan Am Flight 73 which had been hijacked by terrorists during a stopover in Karachi, Pakistan, on 5 September 1986. Posthumously, she became the youngest recipient of India's highest peacetime gallantry, the Ashok Chakra Award, as well as several other accolades from the government of Pakistan and the United States. She was shot while helping passengers escape through the emergency exits. Her life and heroism inspired the biopic Neerja, released in 2016 and directed by Ram Madhvani.
Early life and education
Bhanot was born in Chandigarh, India, and brought up in Bombay (present-day Mumbai) in a Punjabi family. She was the daughter of Harish Bhanot, a Bombay-based journalist, and Rama Bhanot. She had two brothers, Akhil and Aneesh Bhanot. She received her early schooling at Sacred Heart Senior Secondary School in Chandigarh. When the family moved to Bombay, she continued her studies at Bombay Scottish School and then graduated from St. Xavier's College, Bombay. It was in Bombay where she was first spotted for a modelling assignment which began her modelling career. She was a huge fan of actor Rajesh Khanna and used to refer to quotes from his films throughout her life.
Bhanot applied for a flight attendant job with Pan Am, when in 1985 it decided to have an all Indian cabin crew for its Frankfurt to India routes. Upon selection, she went to Miami, Florida for training as a flight attendant, but returned as a purser. She also had a successful modelling career simultaneously during her work at Pan Am.
Bhanot was the Senior Flight Purser on Pan Am Flight 73 flying from Bombay to the United States, which was hijacked by four armed men on 5 September 1986 at Karachi airport in Pakistan. The aircraft was carrying 380 passengers and 13 crew members. The terrorists wanted to fly to Cyprus with the goal of freeing Palestinian prisoners in Cyprus. Bhanot was able to alert the cockpit crew as soon as the hijackers boarded the plane, and as the plane was on the tarmac, the three-member cockpit crew of pilot, co-pilot and the flight engineer fled from the aircraft through an overhead hatch in the cockpit. As the senior-most cabin crew member, Bhanot took charge of the situation inside the plane.
The hijackers were part of the Abu Nidal Organization, a Palestinian terrorist organization backed by Libya; they were targeting Americans and American assets. In the early minutes of the hijacking, they identified an Indian-American citizen, dragged him to the exit, shot him dead and threw his body onto the tarmac. The terrorists then instructed Bhanot to collect the passports of all the passengers so that they could identify the other Americans on board. She and the other attendants under her charge hid the passports of the remaining 43 Americans on board, some under a seat and the rest down a rubbish chute so that the hijackers could not differentiate between American and non-American passengers.
After 17 hours, the hijackers opened fire and set off explosives. Bhanot opened one of the airplane doors, and started helping the other passengers escape. If she wanted, like the other cabin crew on board, she could have been the first one to jump out and escape from the aircraft when she opened the door, but she decided not to and instead started helping the other 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." Out of a total of 44 American passengers, two were killed during the hijacking. A child on board, then aged seven, is now a captain for a major airline and has stated that Bhanot has been his inspiration, and that he owes every day of his life to her. She was recognized internationally as "the heroine of the hijacking" and became the youngest recipient of the Ashok Chakra Award, India's most prestigious gallantry award for bravery during peacetime.
In addition to saving the lives of many hostages, Bhanot had also helped prevent the plane from getting off the ground. 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.
—Ashok Chakra citation
For her bravery, the Government of India posthumously awarded Bhanot the Ashoka Chakra Award, India's highest gallantry award for bravery in the face of the enemy during peacetime. She is the youngest recipient and the first woman recipient of this award. In 2004 the Indian Postal Service released a stamp commemorating her.
After her death, her family set up the Neerja Bhanot Pan Am Trust with insurance money and an equal contribution from Pan Am. The trust presents two awards every year, one for a flight crew member, worldwide, who acts beyond the call of duty and another, the Neerja Bhanot Award, to an Indian woman who when faced with social injustice, bravely faced the situation and helped other women in similar social distress. The award includes a sum of INR 150,000 (approximately US$2,000) a trophy and a citation.
Bhanot's brother Aneesh went to Washington, D.C., in 2005 to receive the "Justice for Crimes Award" awarded posthumously to her as part of the Annual Crime Rights Week at a ceremony held at the United States Attorney's office for the District of Columbia. In 2006, she 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.
The Civil Aviation Ministry of India conferred an honor on Bhanot posthumously on 18 February 2010 in New Delhi on the occasion of the launch of the celebrations of the centenary of Indian aviation.
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.
On 30 May 2018, Punjab University inaugurated the Neerja Bhanot Hostel (Dorm) in the University Campus in Chandigarh. The Hostel (Dorm) can accommodate over 350 girl students.
Personal life and family
Bhanot also had two brothers, Akhil and Aneesh. Her father, Harish Bhanot, worked as a journalist with The Hindustan Times for more than 30 years and died on New Year's Day in 2008 in Chandigarh at the age of 86. Her mother died on 5 December 2015.
- The Neerja I Knew – a coffee table book conceptualized by her brother Aneesh Bhanot and published as a tribute to Bhanot, consisting of several chapters written by people who knew her.
- Neerja – a 2016 Indian Hindi-language biographical thriller drama film written by Saiwyn Quadras and directed by Ram Madhvani starring Sonam Kapoor in title role of "Head Purser" Neerja Bhanot. Sonam Kapoor received a special mention National Award for her acting in the film in 2017.
- The Smile of Courage. a book written by her brother Aneesh Bhanot.
- Ashoka Chakra, 1987, India
- Tamgha-e-Pakistan, 1987, (for showing incredible human kindness), Pakistan
- Flight Safety Foundation Heroism Award 1987, United States
- Justice for Crimes Award 2005, United States Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia, United States
- Special Courage Award 2006, United States Department of Justice, United States
- Civil Aviation Ministry Award 2011, India
- Bharat Gaurav Award presented at the House of Commons, UK Parliament on 2 July 2016
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