Have you watched the movie Neerja starring Sonam Kapoor? The more I reach the climax, the more my heart pounds — it aches — knowing that she’d die! That it’s not just a movie but the life story of a braveheart who didn’t think of herself, her life for even a second — story of India’s youngest and first female recipient of Ashok Chakra who sacrificed her life for more than 300 people.
Neerja Bhanot was only 22 when she died — just 25 hours before her 23rd birthday. The night of Sept 5, 1986, was the last night of her life. Though that night and that incident still haunt a lot of people, Neerja’s bravery and legacy can never be forgotten.
She was cremated a day before her birthday, i.e., on Sept 6, 1986.
It gives me goosebumps while writing this, an unexplainable pain of loss and grievance — this piece is dedicated to that young life who still inspired and is still inspiring thousands!!
Neerja was born to Harish Bhanot and Rama Bhanot on Sept 7, 1963, in Chandigarh. She worked as a model for brands like Benzer sarees, Binaca toothpaste, Godrej Besto detergent, Vaporex, Vico Turmeric cream, etc. before her stint with Pan Am.
Bhanot was very close to her family — the ‘laado’ of her home and her father’s agyakaari beti. She agreed to marry a Dubai-based marine engineer at the age of 21 because her father wanted to, and she did not see any reason to deny her father.
She moved to Sharjah, UAE after marriage only to face mental and verbal abuse, starvation, threat and verbal taunts. “If you can’t cook, stop eating” is what her husband told her. She lost five kilos in two months and was really shattered. She came back to Mumbai, leaving her husband and marriage behind and decided to join the airline services.
She was selected in the top 80 out of 10,000 applicants for the job of a flight attendant with Pam Am. She was appointed the senior flight purser on Pan Am Flight 73 flying from Mumbai to the United States via Karachi on that fateful September day.
The flight was hijacked by terrorists who belonged to the Abu Nidal Organisation, backed by Libya. Neerja was at her best during the entire incident and tried to calm all the passengers and her colleagues. She alerted the pilots who then were able to escape out of the cockpit and save their lives. It was her smartness that ensured that the flight couldn’t take off.
The hijackers asked her to collect the passports of all the passengers so that they could identify the Americans. Smartly, she hid the passports of the Americans and saved their lives. She was shot by bullets while saving three children from the terrorists. One of them, then a 7-year-old, is now himself an airline pilot. He considers Neerja to be his role model.
Neerja proved that no job is big or small and all you need is the dedication to your work. Her calm courage and quick instincts saved several lives. She was awarded Ashoka Chakra. Her citation states: “Her loyalties to the passengers of the aircraft in distress will forever be a lasting tribute to the finest qualities of the human spirit.”
She is also the first civilian who was awarded Ashok Chakra. She also received “Tamgha-e-Insaaniyat,” the civilian award for bravery from Pakistan. She is the only woman on the face of the earth to receive a peace award from both India and Pakistan. She also received the Justice for Crimes Award 2005 and Special Courage Award 2006 from the USA Government. The Indian Postal Service released a stamp in her memory in 2004.
For her fearless act, Bhanot was recognised as ‘The Heroine of the Hijack’ internationally.
She chose others over her life — she died for others.
She was cremated with the chanting of ‘Goodbye darling, please keep coming’, her favourite mantra.
The airline hero of the country, Neerja, was a star. Her story, her life continues to inspire young women. Her family used the funds from Pan Am to set up the Neerja Bhanot Pan Am Trust to commemorate her courage.
She wrote “I will make you proud” in a letter to her father a year before the incident. And yes, she did!
Cheers to you Neerja! Thank you for being an inspiration to our generations. You will always be loved, and your legacy will never be forgotten!