Neerja Bhanot, a woman who was brave in life and brave in death, set an example for all Indians by standing up to a group of hijackers and redefined our understanding of words like ‘humanity’ and ‘bravery’. ‘Do your duty, come what may’ was her motto and she stood by it until her last breath; she gave up her life for the countless others whom she didn’t even know. Certainly, this was her fight against terrorism with a gusto that was nothing less than that of a soldier defending the country. With such an inspiring story, Neerja serves to not only bring pride to our nation but also provides a role model for us to look up to.
Neerja was born to a Brahmin family in Chandigarh on 7th September, 1963. She did her schooling from Sacred Heart Senior Secondary School in Chandigarh and later completed her college from St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai. At an early age of 22 years, she got married and joined her husband in the Gulf. But unfortunately her marriage lasted only for two months because of dowry pressure.
After escaping from her troubled marriage, she returned to Mumbai and lived with her parents. At this time, she got a job as a flight attendant for Pan Am and went to Miami for training. Her compassionate heart, dedication towards her work and beautiful face complimented her job.
However, an unforeseen incident took place two days short of her 23rd birthday, which changed her life, that of her family and left an imprint on the pages of history. On 5th September, 1986, four terrorists hijacked the Pan Am flight 73, en route to Frankfurt and onward to New York City, at Karachi. Their targets were the American travelers on the plane but with remarkable presence of mind, Neerja activated a hijack code on the aircraft’s intercom, which let the three-member cockpit crew escape.
Neerja’s training as a flight attendant and her heroism backed her up with a fighting spirit, enabling her to fling the emergency door open, thereby pushing the passengers down the chute, while she shielded three children as bullets riddled into her body.
Such an act of bravery was acknowledged and rewarded by the Indian, Pakistan and American governments. She was awarded the Ashoka Chakra, India’s highest honor for bravery in peacetime and she became the youngest civilian to receive it. A postage stamp was also issued in her honor in 2004. She also received the ‘Justice for Crimes Award’ and Tamgha-e-Insaniyat award.
Recently, there has been an attempt to revive and praise this act of bravery and courage by filming a biopic on her life. Reportedly, the film will be directed by Ram Madhwani and written by Saiwyn Quadras of ‘Mary Kom’ fame and it might feature Sonam Kapoor essaying the role of the protagonist.
In a self-centered society like ours, Neerja provides a hope that may rekindle our faith in humanity. Her story is not one which can be read and forgotten but one out of which values can be extracted and imbibed into our own value system.