For Neerja Bhanot, a woman who sacrificed her life saving 365 passengers, on Pan Am Flight 73, bravery is a trivial word (to describe her heroism). It is said that even when the hijackers pointed a gun on her head, she did not get terrified and was smiling, giving passengers a hope of survival. Little did she know that they will survive but she will not. She was shot by the hijackers on September 5, 1986, in Karachi, on the flight which was going to Frankfurt from India. Neerja was awarded Tamgha-e-Pakistan and Ashoka Chakra for her heroism and was internationally heralded as ‘Heroine of Hijack’. She is the youngest recipient of Ashoka Chakra and was the first woman to be awarded this title. In the month of her birth anniversary and incidentally death anniversary too, our heartiest homage to this real-life hero, who is no more but lives in our hearts
NEERJA BHANOT AS A CHILD
Hailing from a typical middle-class family, Neerja was born and brought up in Chandigarh with her family that includes, two brothers, mother and father. With two elder brothers, like in every family, the siblings used to fight a lot (recalls her family in a conversation with TLJ). Neerja was the one who was loved the most by her parents among all the siblings, so her parents never listened to the boys and were always on Neerja’s side. While fighting, the one with Neerja’s support always won as their parents supported ‘Lado’ (she was fondly called so) endlessly. She studied in Sacred Hearts High School and both her brothers studied at a school closeby- St John’s High School, Chandigarh. The brothers went to school on cycles and it was their duty to pick her and drop her daily. During summers, it was a fight between the two brothers as none of them was willing to take her because of the hot weather outside. Whenever they used to go movies secretly, if Neerja came to know about this, being an obedient child to her parents, she always disclosed it to their parents (much to the dismal of the brothers)!
NEERJA’S DREAM AS A CHILD
Like any other child, her dreams and aspirations kept changing. It started from aspiring to be a nurse to a doctor, and many more. The airlines job was not on her list at that time. The story of how she became an air hostess is rather interesting. She was called by a friend in Bombay, who was giving an interview for PAN AM. Her friend wanted Neerja to do her makeup for the interview as Neerja was a model at that time. Then, her friend told her to enrol in the interview as well. Neerja was selected and went for the training in Miami. She was very good at whatever she did. She had her own set of rules for every work, in modelling too, like refrained from shoot in swimsuits and had similar rules for herself.
NEERJA’S RELATIONSHIP WITH THE FAMILY
Not only with the family, but she was everybody’s favourite. Where ever she went, people used to love her and she was even called ‘Princess’ by some local shopkeepers.
FAMILY’S SUPPORT IN PURSUING AIRLINES CARRER
Her family stood strong as a rock by her side and never questioned what Neerja did. After all, she was their most loved one- ‘Lado’ and they were proud of whatever Neerja did in her life, from being a good kid to her modelling career and becoming a flight attendant.
TOUGH TIMES IN NEERJA’S LIFE – THE MARRIAGE DAYS
After her sour experience of marriage, Neerja was still very positive, she was always smiling. She did not let any of the family members know about the problems she was facing. She just wrote a letter to her father and the family came to know about her struggle in marriage when she came back home and said that she did not want to go back. The family supported her decision of not going back and there were no long discussions on this topic. They respected her decision.
FAMILY’S LIFE AFTER THE INCIDENT
Her laughter was magical and beautiful. She was very ethical since childhood. Neerja’s loss was irreparable for the family- the Bhanot’s. It was beyond what words can describe. The family does not believe she is dead, she is still with them and they do a host of activities to keep her memories alive.
RECEIVING THE HIGHEST GALLANTRY AWARD ASHOKA CHAKRA
There is a story of the Ashoka Chakra Award ceremony- an award that the family collected on Republic Day. Their father told that Neerja’s mother will collect the award. She was climbing stairs with bowed head, sagging shoulders and broke down as the Citation began. Then President Zail Singh said, ‘Lady, why are you crying? Show me anyone in the crowd here who is more blessed as a mother than you’.Those words had a magical effect on her, she wiped her tears, came down with her back absolutely straight and head held high.
WHAT MADE NEERJA DIFFERENT FROM OTHERS
She had three rules in life to follow your duty, come what may, to never tolerate any injustice and to never compromise on your self-respect.
- Saved 360 passengers out of 380 on Pan Am Flight 73 at the age of 22
- The youngest recipient of Ashoka Chakra and was the first women to be awarded this title
- Awarded Tamgha-e-Pakistan by Pakistan and several other accolades from the government of the United States
- Last one to leave the plane, killed by a bullet while saving three children
WHAT HAPPENED TO THE HIJACKERS OF PAN AM FLIGHT 73 ?
Back to 1986- The hijacking operation ended when the hijackers ran out of bullets around 16 hours later. The five terrorists of Palestinian origin-Zayd Hassan Abd Al-LatifMasud Al Safarini, Mohammed Abdul Khalil Hussain, Daud Mohammed Hafiz, Mohammed Ahmed al-Munawar and Jamal Saeed were all arrested by Pakistani security forces.
At a trial held in 1988, all of the convicts admitted to having carried out the hijackings and were given death sentences that were later commuted to life imprisonment.
(The story is part of conversation with Neerja’s brother-
Aneesh Bhanot who resides in Chandigarh with his family).