Neerja Bhanot, a courageous purser on board the hijacked Pan Am Flight 73 who was murdered while saving passengers from terrorists on 5 September 1986. Posthumously, she became the youngest recipient of India's highest peacetime military award for bravery, the Ashok Chakra, also the first female to receive this award. With the film around the corner and the publicity campaign at full flow, a lot is being written and shared about Neerja on the social media. So, there was a natural curiosity to find out about her.
Neerja Bhanot was born in Chandigarh on 7th September 1962, the third child of Rama Bhanot and Harish Bhanot, a Mumbai-based journalist. Her parents already had two sons and were very happy to have a daughter. She is described to have been a very sensitive, deeply affectionate and extremely decent child in her growing up years who believed in sharing with her people all her joys but not the jolts.
Neerja suffered the first set-back early in her life when she had an arranged marriage in March 1985 and joined her husband in the Gulf. The marriage was a harrowing experience which lasted but two months. Before the marriage, it was made clear that it would be a dowry less marriage. But when she reached the "ordained home" she was told that even a "very poor man gives something to his daughter in marriage". She was starved off finance and food in a foreign land and she lost five kg of weight in just two months. She had to borrow money from the husband even to make a telephone call. She had been modelling even before marriage and had come back to Mumbai to honour a modelling contract. An ugly letter followed, listing terms for her return, which she believed that no person with self-respect could accept. The letter listed a straight formula: accept the humiliating terms without a whimper and return at your own cost or "we will separate". The worst was that the letter asked her as to what was she? "You are just a graduate". The gutsy Neerja could not pocket this and she decided to stay back with her parents, which in 1985 was a big step shrouded in social stigma. Instead she applied for a flight attendant's job with Pam Am. There were nearly 10,000 applications but Neerja found place among the top 80. In fact, the Pan Am job was a great success from day one. She went to Miami for training as a flight attendant but she returned home as a Purser (the cabin manager or the chief flight attendant).
Neerja was the senior flight purser on the ill-fated Pan Am Flight 73 flying from Mumbai to USA, which was hijacked by four armed men on 5th September 1986 at Karachi airport in Pakistan. The aircraft was carrying 361 passengers and 19 crew members. The terrorist wanted to fly to Israel and wanted to crash the plane against a building. After the terrorists boarded the plane disguised as airport security personnel, they advanced to take charge of the aircraft, Neerja, who happened to be the first one to become aware of the hijack, dashed to inform the captain in the cockpit. A terrorist, however, caught her by her handy ponytail but she was able to shout the "hijack code". Another flight attendant who got her code conveyed it to the cockpit. As the plane was on the tarmac, the three-member American cockpit crew of pilot, co-pilot and the flight engineer evacuated the aircraft through an overhead hatch in the cockpit per their training so that the aircraft could not be forcibly flown. Neerja, being the most senior cabin crew member remaining aboard, took charge. Her training had taught her to follow up the hijacking warning with 6 steps. In the Karachi situation, she was required to "communicate" with the hijackers. Her smiles, even in deep distress, won a response. She looked after the passengers, within permissible limits. Her smiles were taken as an assurance by the passengers and crew members that the worst was over. The hijackers were part of the terrorist Abu Nidal Organization and were backed by Libya. The terrorists then instructed her to collect the passports of all the passengers so that they could identify the Americans. The terrorists wanted to put pressure on America by identifying and threatening the Americans on the aircraft. Neerja and the other attendants under her charge hid the passports of the 41 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 citizens. The power generator was running out of fuel and voltage was falling. Then "something" happened. Neerja was standing close to the leader of the terrorists. The light had become very dim. Suddenly, guns began vomiting fire within the aircraft. Neerja jumped to the emergency exit and threw it open, where a chute flung and she assisted all the passengers escape. According to Dr. Kishore Murthy, his wife Dr. Veena Bharthi, Mrs. Malti Krishnaswamy and other eyewitnesses, Neerja was absolutely calm and efficient through the horrific episode. She and another flight attendant were helping the passengers out of the exit door when one of the terrorists started targeting them. There was constant firing of rounds. The auxiliary power unit had failed and the terrorists feared a commando attack. Hence, they started firing indiscriminately. The terrorist who spotted Neerja helping passengers out caught her and shot her point blank. In the dead body, there were bullets in her abdomen, on the shoulder near the neck and in the arm. Not only had she assured the failure of the hijacking by preventing the plane from getting off the ground, she also saved the lives of hostages in those long hours of incarceration. This incident happened just two days before her twenty-fourth birthday.
Neerja was recognized internationally as "the heroine of the hijack". In 2004 the Indian Postal Service released a stamp commemorating her. With insurance money and an equal contribution from Pan Am for using the brand Pan Am in the title, her parents set up the Neerja Bhanot Pan Am Trust. 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 such as dowry or desertion perseveres and then helps other women in similar social distress. The award includes a sum of INR 1,50,000, a trophy and a citation. Neerja's brother Aneesh went to Washington DC 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. A square called Neerja Bhanot Chowk is named after her in Mumbai's Ghatkopar (East) suburb by the Mumbai Municipal Corporation, which was inaugurated by Amitabh Bachchan. The civil aviation ministry of India conferred an honour on Neerja Bhanot posthumously on 18th February 2010 in New Delhi on the occasion of the launch of the celebrations of the centenary of Indian aviation.
Source: Wikipedia, Google search and the website on Neerja (http://neerjabhanot.org/)