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Friday, April 1, 2011

First Indian Woman To Receive Ashok Chakra

Neerja Bhanot (January 3, 1963 – September 5, 1986 ), was a flight attendant for Pan Am airlines, based in Bombay, India, who died while fighting terrorism on board the hijacked Pan Am Flight 73 on September 5, 1986, she went on to become the youngest recipient of India’s highest civilian award for bravery, the Ashoka Chakra.

Neerja Bhanot, born in Chandigarh, India, was the daughter of Rama Bhanot and Harish Bhanot, a New Delhi based journalist. She was an alumnus of Sacred Heart Senior Secondary School, Chandigarh, Bombay Scottish School and St. Xavier's College, Mumbai.

Neerja had an arranged marriage in March, 1985 and joined her husband in the Gulf. However, the marriage turned sour following dowry pressure and she returned to her parents' home in Mumbai within two months. Subsequently, she applied for a flight attendant’s job with Pan Am Airline, and upon selection, went to Miami for training as a flight attendant but returned as purser.
Neerja Bhanot was the senior flight purser on the ill-fated Pan Am Flight 73, hijacked as it headed out of Mumbai and landed at Karachi en route to Frankfurt and onward to New York City by four armed terrorists. Despite being tackled, she helped the three-member cockpit crew of pilot, co-pilot and the flight engineer escape. In the following 17-hour ordeal, she hid the passports of the passengers on the flight so that the hijackers could not differentiate between American and Non-American citizens. Eventually, she opened the emergency door, flung a chute and assisted a number of passengers' escape from the flight, while she laid down her life shielding three children from bullets fired by the terrorists.

The hijackers, who were Palestinians said to be from the Abu Nihal Organisation were captured, tried, convicted and sentenced to death in 1988 but later commuted to life in prison.
In 2001, Zayd Hassan Abd Al-Latif Masud Al Safarini, the hijacker who shot the passengers was captured by FBI in Bangkok after being released by Pakistan. In the US, he is presently serving 160 years prison term in Colorado. Four others were freed from Pakistan's Adiala Jail in January 2008. The FBI has announced a $5 million bounty on their head.
Pakistani intelligence officials announced that one of the hijackers, Jamal Saeed Abdul Rahim was killed in North Waziristan tribal region in a US missile attack on 9 January 2010. As per the FBI website he was a Palestinian with possible Lebanese citizenship. ( Sunday Times of India, 17 January 2010 ).

For her bravery the Government of India posthumously awarded her the Ashoka Chakra (India's highest decoration for gallantry away from the battlefield, or not in the face of the enemy), being its youngest and only female recipient. In 2004 the Indian Postal Service released a stamp commemorating her.
With the money from the insurance settlement and an equal contribution from Pan Am, Neerja's parents set up the 'Neerja Bhanot Pan Am Trust'. The trust presents two awards every year, one for flight crew members worldwide who act beyond the call of duty and another to Indian women showing exemplary courage. The award includes a sum of INR 1,50,000, a trophy and a citation.
Neerja's brother Aneesh Bhanot went to Washington DC, in 2005 to receive the 'Justice for Crimes Award' awarded posthumously to Neerja 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 US Department of Justice.

A square called Neerja Bhanot Chowk is named after her in Mumbai's Ghatkopar (east) suburb by Municipal corporation.The civil aviation ministry of India conferred an honor on Neerja Bhanot posthumously on February 18, 2010 in New Delhi on the occasion of the launch of the celebrations of the centenary of Indian Aviation.

Neerja has two brothers. Her father, Harish Bhanot, a veteran journalist with The Hindustan Times served for over 30 years, first at Chandigarh and later in Mumbai, died on Jan 01, 2008 in Chandigarh at the age of 89.

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