The only women to get awarded by Pakistan and India — Neerja Bhanot

Karthick Nambi
Dec 25, 2019 · 4 min read

It is a hijacked flight that has landed in Pakistan for refueling. Passengers got tensed as time passes by. The demands of the terrorists who hijacked the flight are known to the government, but there are no positive signals. There was a brave guardian angel who will protect the 300 passengers from the hijackers. The guardian angel is Neerja Bhanot.

Indian postal stamp in honor of Neerja Bhanot. Source: Wikipedia

Neerja Bhanot was a senior flight purser in Pan Am flight 73 from Mumbai to the United States. The flight left Mumbai on September 5, 1986, with 361 passengers and 13 crew members. The flight touched down at Karachi International Airport in Pakistan for refueling before starting to Frankfurt in then West Germany. During its stay in Karachi airport, the flight got hijacked by five terrorists belonging to the Abu Nidal Organization posing as airport security. Their primary aim, as per investigation, is to help in the escape of fellow terrorists in Cyprus.

Bravery Act 1:

Neerja Bhanot sensing the hijack, reported it to the cockpit. The pilot, co-pilot, and the technical crew escaped from the cockpit. Their escape made sure that the flight cannot take off immediately. This act saved the lives of the people on board as it got later revealed that the hijackers were planning a 9/11 style attack on Israel using the flight

The hijackers now knowing that the plane can’t take off dragged an American citizen and shot him and warned the management of Pan Am to send a crew so that the flight can start immediately. They then asked the flight attendants to collect the passenger passports.

Bravery Act 2:

Neerja Bhanot understood the reason for the passport collection. The terrorists wanted to isolate American citizens among the passengers. So Neerja Bhanot instructed her fellow crew members to discard American passenger’s passports under the seat or into the dustbin. They managed to hide 41 passports, and this made the terrorists difficult to segregate American citizens from the passenger list

The hijackers moved the entire passengers to the back of the flight. Passengers from the first-class got moved to the economy class. Some passengers were sitting on the floor due to space constraints.

Bravery Act 3:

Neerja Bhanot removed some part of her manual secretly for instruction to open the emergency door and slipped it into a magazine. She handed it over to a passenger near the emergency and asked them to look into it and read the in case of doubt.

The hijack was going on for 17 hours straight, and the terrorists were losing their patience. At around 9:00 pm the aircraft auxiliary power went down as the flight engine got switched off for a long time. The terrorists thought that it’s a plan of the Pakistan security forces are they are getting ready to raid the aircraft. Fearing this, the terrorists started to fire at the passengers madly and throwing grenades at them. The bullets were scattering, and small detonations were happening inside the aircraft

Bravery Act 4:

Neerja Bhanot opened the emergency exit immediately with the help of fellow passengers and crew members. She was next to the exit door but didn’t escape but helped all the passengers to disembark safely. In her act of shielding 3 American children, she was shot multiple times by terrorists. She lost her life to save 300 people that day.


The terrorists responsible for the attacks were tried in Pakistan and were given sentences to death. But it was later reduced to life imprisonment. The main accused got extradited to the USA for serving 160 years in jail. The other four escaped from the Pakistani prison were they kept in 2008 and are under FBI most wanted terrorists. Out of the passengers and crew who lost their lives that day, 12 are from India; two are from the USA.

Awards and accolades

  1. Neerja Bhanot got awarded “Ashoka Chakra” for her bravery. Ashoka Chakra is the highest award for the military in India. See below the citation she received for the award

“Her loyalties to the passengers of the aircraft in distress will forever be a lasting tribute to the finest qualities of the human spirit.”

2. She is the first lady to be awarded Ashoka Chakra award

3. She was the first civilian to get Ashika Chakra

4. Neerja Bhanot received “Tamgha-e-Insaaniyat,” the civilian award for bravery from Pakistan.

5. She is the only person on the face of the earth to receive peace award from both India and Pakistan.

6. She was the youngest recipient of the Ashoka Chakra award to date.

7. She is first Indian to receive a Pakistan peace award then it was only Moraji Desai in 1990

8. She also received the Justice for Crimes Award 2005 and Special Courage Award 2006 from USA Government.

I was researching for today’s article and came across this stunning lady who punched the terrorists who were there to risk their lives to take others’ experiences. There she was standing as a wall protecting and risking her life to save others. I was going along the list of Ashoka Chakra recipients to learn about their stories. The long list of great men and women from a Military career and suddenly, her name struck me. She was the only women civilian on the list, and she got the award when she was just “22” years old. She has laid down her life to save many, and we need to remember her.

A movie on her brave act got released in 2016 under the name “Neerja.”


World history in chunks

Karthick Nambi

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A vivid engineer with interest in history and technology

World history in chunks

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