Bhanot was born in Chandigarh, India, and brought up in Mumbai in a Punjabi family. She was the daughter of Harish Bhanot, a Mumbai-based journalist, and Rama Bhanot. She had two brothers: Akhil and Aneesh Bhanot. She received her early schooling at Sacred Heart Senior Secondary School in Chandigarh. When the family moved to Bombay (later renamed to Mumbai), she continued her studies at Bombay Scottish School and then graduated from St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai. It was in Mumbai where she was first spotted for a modelling assignment which began her modelling career. She was a huge fan of actor Rajesh Khanna and used to refer to quotes from his films throughout her life.
Bhanot applied for a flight attendant job with Pan Am, when in 1985 it decided to have an all Indian cabin crew for its Frankfurtto India routes. Upon selection, she went to Miami, Florida for training as a flight attendant, but returned as a purser. She also had a successful modelling career simultaneously during her work at Pan Am.
Bhanot was the senior flight purser on Pan Am Flight 73 flying from Mumbai to the United States, which was hijacked by four armed men on 5 September 1986 at Karachiairport in Pakistan. The aircraft was carrying 365 passengers and 19 crew members. The terrorists wanted to fly to Cyprus with the goal of freeing Palestinian prisoners in Cyprus. Bhanot was able to alert the cockpit crew as soon as the hijackers boarded the plane, and as the plane was on the tarmac, the three-member cockpit crew of pilot, co-pilot and the flight engineer left the aircraft through an overhead hatch in the cockpit. As the senior-most cabin crew member, Bhanot took charge of the situation inside the plane.
The hijackers were part of the Abu Nidal Organization, a terrorist organization backed by Libya; they were targeting Americans and American assets. In the early minutes of the hijacking, they identified an American citizen, dragged him to the exit, shot him dead and threw his body on to the tarmac. The terrorists then instructed Bhanot to collect the passports of all the passengers so that they could identify the other Americans on board. She and the other attendants under her charge hid the passports of the remaining 43 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 passengers.
After 17 hours, the hijackers opened fire and set off explosives. Bhanot opened one of the airplane doors, and started helping the other passengers escape. According to a surviving passenger, “She was guiding the passengers to the emergency exit. That is when the terrorists were firing constantly fearing a commando attack. They saw Neerja relentlessly trying to help the passengers out and that is when they caught her by her ponytail and shot her point blank.” She was shot while shielding 3 American children from a hail of gunfire from the terrorists. Out of a total of 44 American passengers, two were killed during the hijacking. A child on board, then aged seven, is now a captain for a major airline and has stated that Bhanot has been his inspiration, and that he owes every day of his life to her.She was recognized internationally as “the heroine of the hijack” and became the youngest recipient of the Ashok Chakra Award, India’s most prestigious gallantry award for bravery during peace time.
In addition to saving the lives of many hostages, Bhanot had also helped prevent the plane from getting off the ground. She posthumously received multiple awards for her courage from the United States government, and the Tamgha-e-Pakistan from Pakistan, an award given for showing great human kindness.
Identities of the hijackers
The hijackers were members of the Abu Nidal Organisation. All of the hijackers were arrested by Pakistani authorities and sent to prison. In 2001, one of the hijackers who shot at passengers, Zayd Hassan Abd Al-Latif Masud Al Safarini, was released under a deal by Pakistan and captured by the FBIin Bangkok, Thailand, a day later. An Associated Press report from 2009 states that four men were released after completing their jail terms and deported to the Palestinian territories against the wishes of the United States government, but there is ambiguity about their whereabouts. The FBI then announced a $5 million bounty for their capture. In January 2010, Pakistani intelligence officials announced that a drone attack in the North Waziristan tribal region had killed one of the released hijackers, Jamal Saeed Abdul Rahim. His death was never confirmed and he remains on the FBI Most Wanted Terrorists and Rewards for Justice Program lists.
“Her loyalties to the passengers of the aircraft in distress will forever be a lasting tribute to the finest qualities of the human spirit.”
—Ashok Chakra citation
For her bravery, the Government of India posthumously awarded Bhanot the Ashoka Chakra Award, India’s highest gallantry award for bravery in the face of the enemy during peace time. She is the youngest recipient and the first woman recipient of this award. In 2004 the Indian Postal Service released a stamp commemorating her.
After her death, her family set up the Neerja Bhanot Pan Am Trust with insurance money and an equal contribution from Pan Am. 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, bravely faced the situation and helped other women in similar social distress. The award includes a sum of INR 1,50,000 (approximately $2,000 USD) a trophy and a citation.
Bhanot’s brother Aneesh went to Washington, D.C., 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.
The Civil Aviation Ministry of India conferred an honor on Bhanot posthumously on 18 February 2010 in New Delhi on the occasion of the launch of the celebrations of the centenary of Indian aviation.
On 2 July 2016, the Bharat Gaurav Award was conferred on her at a ceremony held at the House of Commons, UK Parliament in London, England.
Personal life and family
Bhanot had an arranged marriagein March 1985 and joined her husband in Doha, Qatar. However, the marriage soon deteriorated following alleged dowry pressure and she returned to her parents’ home in Mumbai within two months.
Bhanot had two brothers, Akhil and Aneesh. Her father, Harish Bhanot, worked as a journalist with The Hindustan Times for more than 30 years and died on New Year’s Dayin 2008 in Chandigarh at the age of 86. Her mother died on 5 December 2015, thus outliving her daughter for almost three decades and her husband for almost eight years.
The Neerja I Knew – a coffee table book conceptualized by her brother Aneesh Bhanot and published as a tribute to Bhanot consisting of several chapters written by people who knew her.
Neerja – a 2016 Indian Hindi-language biographical thriller drama film written by Saiwyn Quadras and directed by Ram Madhvani starring Sonam Kapoorin titular role of “Head Purser” Neerja Bhanot. Sonam Kapoor received a special mention National Award for her acting in the film in 2017.