Neerja Bhanot has been an icon, an Indian idol who gave her life to save the passengers of the Pan Am Flight 73 that was hijacked in 1986, and the symbol of bravery since then. Yet, for most of the modern and present generation, it was a forgotten or unheard story and that was until earlier this year when Neerja was released as a Bollywood biopic, to remind about or in other cases recite the teary story of a tender brave-heart.
Neerja Bhanot has been very much relevant this month: her touching story, thanks to the movie, was the centrepiece when the Houses of Indian Parliament discussed the Anti-hijacking Bill. Wasn’t for Neerja Bhanot and her 1986 selfless sacrifice, the Bill that broadens the definition of hijacking and proposes to enhance punishment to the perpetrators as well as the area of jurisdiction would have had a tough time passing the Houses.
Neerja Bhanot died on the night of Sept. 5, 1986, after terrorists killed her for helping passengers escape the flight hijacked at Karachi airport, Pakistan. Four armed terrorists passed the Karachi airport security and stormed the flight from Bombay (now Mumbai) that had landed at Karachi early in the morning. The hijackers took control of the flight minutes before it could take off to Frankfurt, en route New York. Senior flight attendant Neerja was among the 380 passengers and crew aboard; 360 of them lived to tell the world of her calm courage and supreme sacrifice. The terrorists could have done anything to her, but Neerja, daughter of a Mumbai journalist Harish Bhanot, showed no fear. Even as she was dying, she was saving lives. She became the youngest recipient of India’s highest peacetime military award for bravery, the Ashok Chakra.
Neerja told the heroic story and brought out tears. Bollywood actress Sonam Kapoor put in her best performance for Neerja Bhanot. It drew praises both from the critics and audience alike.
Neerja Bhanot, who was also a thriving advertisement model, was killed two days before she could become 23. Her mother passed away days before the movie hit the screen. Neerja was heart-breaking.
The Anti-Hijacking Bill, 2014, provides for the death penalty even if ground handling staff and airport personnel are killed during such acts. In the earlier Bill, hijackers could be tried for the death penalty only in the event of death of hostages, such as flight crew, passengers and security personnel. The definition of hijacking will now include technological interventions and intimidation. The Bill will also introduce the provision of death penalty for perpetrators.
According to DNA, the bill defines hijacking as seizing control of an aircraft in service, unlawfully and intentionally, by technological means or by exercising force, coercion or any other form of intimidation. The bill covers several acts within the definition of hijacking, which includes attempt and abetment of hijacking, making a credible threat to commit hijacking and organising or directing others to commit hijacking.
At the Rajya Sabha
On May 4, the upper House of Parliament, Rajya Sabha, passed the Bill. Participating in the discussion on the Bill, AU Singh Deo of the BJD said the Bill does not have provisions for improving security and intelligence gathering. He also said the Bill must cover the issue of compensation in case of Indian carriers as well as foreign carriers, the Indian Express reported.
At the Lok Sabha
On May 10, the lower House, Lok Sabha, passed the Bill. The debate in Lok Sabha resulted in dismissing suggestions that there should be no death penalty provisions in hijacking cases. Congress leader Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury began his speech by referring to Neerja Bhanot, “Neerja Bhanot had laid down her life for securing the lives of the passengers of a hijacked aircraft. This aspect of hijacking still looms large and is a frightening reality even today.”
Dismissing suggestions that there should be no death penalty provision in hijacking cases, Civil Aviation Minister Ashok Gajapathi noted that the country had witnessed 19 hijacking incidents. “Death penalty has been brought in where if a death occurs—it could be a policeman, it could be a passenger, it could be anyone—then the people who perpetrate this nefarious act ought to be sentenced to death,” he was quoted as saying by the Express.
Even Congress leader Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury began his speech by referring to Neerja Bhanot. DNA noted that a number of MPs referred to Neerja Bhanot during their speeches and also to the recent movie that was based on the 1986 hijack.