Neerja Bhanot

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Neerja Bhanot

A 2004 Indian postage stamp depicting the Ashoka Chakra award next to a portrait of a smiling Bhanot
Neerja on a 2004 post-stamp of India
Born(1963-09-07)7 September 1963
Chandigarh, India
Died5 September 1986(1986-09-05) (aged 22)
Cause of deathGunshot wound
EmployerPan Am
Known forPan Am Flight 73

Neerja Bhanot (7 September 1963 – 5 September 1986)[1][2] was an Indian purser who died while saving passengers on Pan Am Flight 73 which had been hijacked by terrorists from a terrorist organization during a stopover in Karachi, Pakistan, on 5 September 1986, just two days before her 23rd birthday. Posthumously, she became the youngest recipient of India's highest peacetime gallantry, the Ashoka Chakra Award, as well as several other accolades from the governments of Pakistan and the United States. She was shot while helping passengers escape through the emergency exits.[2][3] Her life and heroism inspired the biopic Neerja, which was released in 2016 and was directed by Ram Madhvani starring Sonam Kapoor.

Early life and family[edit]

Bhanot was born in Chandigarh, India, and brought up in Bombay (present-day Mumbai) in a Punjabi Hindu Brahmin family.[4][5] She was the daughter of Harish Bhanot, a Bombay-based journalist, and Rama Bhanot. She had two brothers, Akhil and Aneesh Bhanot.[6] 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.[1] It was in Bombay where she was first spotted for a modelling assignment which began her modelling career.[7] She was a huge fan of actor Rajesh Khanna and used to refer to quotes from his films throughout her life.[8]

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.[9] Her mother died on 5 December 2015 at the age of 86.[10]


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.[1][11] 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 via Karachi and Frankfurt, 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 apron, 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 most senior cabin crew member, Bhanot took charge of the situation inside the plane.[11][12][13]

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 from the plane. 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 garbage chute so that the hijackers could not differentiate between American and non-American passengers.[11][12][14]

After 17 hours, the hijackers opened fire and set off explosives. Bhanot opened one of the airplane doors, and even though she could have been the first one to jump out and flee from the aircraft, she did not do so 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 three unaccompanied children, among others, out and that is when they caught her by her hair and shot her point blank."[15] A child on board, then aged seven, became 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.[16] 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.[11][12][13]

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 Government of United States, and the Tamgha-e-Pakistan from Pakistan, an award given for showing great human kindness.[12][17]


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 female recipient of this award.[1][18][19] In 2004 the Indian Postal Service released a stamp commemorating her.[20][21]

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[1]

After her death, her family set up the Neerja Bhanot Trust with insurance money. 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.[11][22][23]

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.[24] 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.[17]

Bhanot House of Austrey School was named in her honour.[25][26]

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.[citation needed]

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.[27]

On 30 May 2018, Panjab University inaugurated the Neerja Bhanot Hostel (Dorm) in the University Campus in Chandigarh. The Hostel (Dorm) can accommodate over 350 girl students.[citation needed]

In popular culture[edit]

  • The Neerja I Knew – a coffee table book conceptualised by her brother Aneesh Bhanot and published as a tribute to Bhanot, consisting of several chapters written by people who knew her.[28][29]
Sonam Kapoor, who portrayed Bhanot in Neerja
  • 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. [30]
  • The Smile of Courage – a book written by her brother Aneesh Bhanot.[31]

Awards and honours[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e Vij, Illa (13 November 2000). "Brave in life, brave in death". The Tribune. Tribune Trust.
  2. ^ a b "'I saw Neerja being shot in the head' – Times of India". The Times of India. Retrieved 3 December 2016.
  3. ^ Mohan, Megha (31 March 2016). "Inside a hijack: The unheard stories of the Pan Am 73 crew". BBC News. Retrieved 3 December 2016.
  4. ^ "The glamorous lives of '80s air hostesses in India". Quartz. 4 February 2016.
  5. ^ "Neerja Bhanot- Inspiration Personified". 12 November 2018. Retrieved 15 January 2022.
  6. ^ Avantika Bhuyan (5 March 2016). "It is incredible how blessed this project has been: Atul Kasbekar".
  7. ^ "'The Sky Was Her Limit". The Indian Express. Retrieved 23 February 2016.
  8. ^ "Neerja: A fond tribute to a forgotten hero". Retrieved 14 January 2017.
  9. ^ "Journalist, former MC member Harish Bhanot passes away". The Indian Express. Indian Express Limited. 2 January 2008. Archived from the original on 5 December 2008.
  10. ^ Kapoor, Jaskiran (7 December 2015). "Body donated to PGI: Ashok Chakra recipient Neerja Bhanot's mother dies at 86". The Indian Express.
  11. ^ a b c d e The Story of Neerja Bhanot – India’s Flight Attendant – CN Traveller. (18 January 2016). Retrieved on 14 November 2018.
  12. ^ a b c d Kapoor, Vandita (19 December 2015). "Neerja Bhanot – The Indian Flight Attendant Who Saved 360 Lives". The Better India.
  13. ^ a b Why Everyone Should Know ‘Hijack Heroine’ Neerja Bhanot’s Story. The Quint
  14. ^ "MY STORY: I Survived the Pan Am Hijack During Which Neerja Bhanot Lost Her Life". The Better India. 22 February 2016. Retrieved 3 December 2016.
  15. ^ "'I saw Neerja being shot in the head' – Times of India". The Times of India. Retrieved 14 January 2017.
  16. ^ "Who is Neerja Bhanot & How Pan Am-73 flight was hijacked in Sept 1986?". Retrieved 11 December 2016.
  17. ^ a b c "Special Courage Awards: Pan Am Flight 73 flight attendants and the Pan Am Director for Pakistan". United States Department of Justice. Archived from the original on 13 March 2008.
  18. ^ "Nominations invited for Neerja Bhanot Awards". The Indian Express. Indian Express Limited. 5 September 2006. Archived from the original on 5 December 2008.
  19. ^ Ambardar, Avani (20 July 2014) Neerja Bhanot: Brave in life, brave in death. Times of India.
  20. ^ "Stamp on Neerja released". The Tribune. Tribune Trust. 9 October 2004.
  21. ^ Jaffry, Nasir (4 January 2008). "Pak frees Pan Am hijack quartet". The Telegraph. ABP Group.
  22. ^ "NeerjaTrust – Neerja Bhanot Pan Am Trust". Karmayog. Archived from the original on 26 July 2011.
  23. ^ "Mumbai based Chanda Asani to get Neerja Bhanot Award 2008". Business Standard. 16 September 2008.
  24. ^ a b "America honours Neerja Bhanot". The Times of India. 13 April 2005. Archived from the original on 11 August 2011.
  25. ^ "Information - Austrey School". Archived from the original on 8 November 2015. Retrieved 23 August 2015.
  26. ^ "Ermine Schools – Ermine". Archived from the original on 2 July 2017. Retrieved 14 January 2017.
  27. ^ "Neerja Bhanot Conferred 'Bharat Gaurav Award' In London". Retrieved 14 January 2017.
  28. ^ Book in the memory of Neerja released. Times of India (18 February 2016). Retrieved on 14 November 2018.
  29. ^ "The Neerja I Knew: 'This book is tribute to my younger sister who showed true meaning of courage'". Indian Express. 18 February 2016. Retrieved 14 January 2017.
  30. ^ Verma, Sukanya. "Neerja: A fond tribute to a forgotten hero". Rediff. Retrieved 22 October 2021.
  31. ^ Kaur, Gurnaaz (20 August 2018). "A tale of courage". Tribune India.
  32. ^ "Ashoka Chakra recipients (1952–92)". Indian Army Web Portal. Retrieved 18 January 2017.
  33. ^ Sengupta, Durga M (11 February 2016). "Pakistan bans Neerja now. But why then did they award the Pan Am hero?". Archived from the original on 20 April 2016. Retrieved 10 April 2016.
  34. ^ "FSF Heroism Award". Flight Safety Foundation. 2011. Retrieved 10 April 2016.
  35. ^ "Centre honours Neerja Bhanot". The Times of India. 19 February 2011. Retrieved 10 April 2016.
  36. ^ "Civil Aviation Ministry honours air hostess Neerja Bhanot who was killed by terrorists". Journalism of Courage Archive. The Indian EXPRESS. 19 February 2011. Retrieved 10 April 2016.
  37. ^ "Neerja Bhanot Conferred 'Bharat Gaurav Award' In London". NDTV. 3 July 2016. Retrieved 4 September 2018.

External links[edit]