New Delhi: Flight attendant Neerja Bhanot, an ardent Rajesh Khanna fan, often found herself dreaming up scenarios in which she played a role. For one such hypothetical situation, she asked her mother to suggest a plan of action in case of a hijack.
Her mother told her, “Agar aisa kuch hua toh bhaag jaana (If something like this ever happens, escape).”
To which a confident Neerja replied, “Mummy, tumhari jaisi maa hongi toh desh ka kya hoga? Mar jayungi lekin bhagungi nahin” (If all mothers think like you, then what will happen to the country? I’d rather die than run away).”
Those words came true on 5 September 1986 when Bhanot died while saving passengers on Pan Am Flight 73, which had been hijacked during a stopover in Karachi.
But, the ‘Heroine of the Hijack’ had seen her share of troubles already.
Born to Harish and Rama Bhanot on 7 September 1963 in Chandigarh, she was the darling of her family, which included two brothers, all of whom called her their ‘lado’. She studied in Chandigarh and later in Mumbai, which was where she became a model, endorsing brands like Binaca toothpaste, Forhans and Godrej.
At the age of 19, she was married to a marine engineer and moved to Sharjah, UAE. After two months of abuse, including starvation, verbal taunts and threats, Bhanot left her husband, returned to Mumbai and decided to become a flight attendant.
Bhanot was appointed the senior flight purser on Pan Am Flight 73 flying from Mumbai to the United States on that fateful September day.
During its stopover in Karachi, four armed Palestinian men belonging to the Abu Nidal Organisation hijacked the aircraft, which was carrying around 380 passengers and 13 crew members. Bhanot quickly alerted the cockpit crew by using the hijack code, which allowed the American pilots to escape and thus, ground the plane.
The enraged hijackers ordered her to collect the passengers’ passports. Sensing that the hijacker’s key targets were Americans, Bhanot and her crew hid those passports under the seats and in the trash chute.
Her calming presence also, it is said, kept the passengers’ and crew members’ anxieties in control for 17 hours as she served sandwiches and beverages and tried to boost their morale, even as the terrorists killed a passenger and threw him out of the plane.
When the hijackers eventually decided they had had enough and opened fire, Bhanot worked fast to evacuate as many passengers as she could via the emergency exit. She was shot dead as she shielded three American children from the terrorists.
Out of the 44 Americans on board, 42 were saved owing to Bhanot’s presence of mind. The survivors of the attack conferred the monicker ‘Heroine of the Hijack’ upon her.
Bhanot’s calm courage and quick instincts led to a slew of posthumous awards, including the Ashoka Chakra — India’s highest peacetime gallantry award. She was the first woman and youngest recipient of the award. 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.”
Her story continues to inspire young women, and in order to commemorate her courage, Bhanot’s family used the funds from Pan Am to set up the Neerja Bhanot Pan Am Trust. The trust recognises Indian women who overcome social injustice and airline crew members who go beyond the call of duty in a crisis.
Among other honours, Bhanot was conferred with the Tamgha-e-Insaniyat award by Pakistan, and in 2004, the Indian Postal Service released a stamp in her memory.
In 2016, Ram Madhvani directed a biopic starring Sonam Kapoor as Neerja. The biopic is a stylised thriller with a few lovely glimpses into Bhanot’s personal life, especially her relationship with her mother (played by Shabana Azmi). The film, too, won a number of awards, including the National Award for the Best Feature Film in Hindi.