Flight Plan

Drama in the skies

V Rishi Kumar | | Updated on: Mar 19, 2019

Amrita Ahluwalia | Photo Credit: K.V.S. GIRI

Here’s the fifth article in our series on people who are witness to milestone moments — facilitated by aviation, in this instance

You could call the action that unfolded on August 10, 1991, a milestone moment for Indian aviation all right — but with a difference. Aviation played a big part in it although the event itself was not directly related to aviation.

The person behind the developments on that day was Amrita Ahluwalia, an air-hostess with Indian Airlines, who saved a 10-year-old child from marriage with an elderly Arab. The child was being taken from Hyderabad to Delhi by an Indian Airlines flight, for onward journey to the Gulf.

Ah, yes, of course, you might say, as you recall the Ameena Begum incident. Almost 28 years after the event that jolted the nation’s conscience, what is this former air-hostess busy with?

BusinessLine caught up with Amrita for a chat.

Post-retirement, Amrita comes across as the same bubbly person who greeted passengers on Indian Airlines flights with her pleasing Namaskar and smile. Settling down, but not before plying us with some fresh home-made biscuits, Amrita relives the highs and lows of her 38-year-long career with Indian Airlines.

There are happy moments, there is also the pain and angst that she had to go through, be it when she broke the child bride racket, better known as the Ameena case, or during some rough phases in her career. There were also health issues, her battle with cancer, and going through chemo and radiation sessions, which left her speech with a slur.

We seek to know a little about her early years, how did she get into aviation? “I was born into a middle-class family in Haryana, my father, a farmer, hailed from Sialkot in Pakistan, so I have one leg there,” she says. “My mother, a teacher, had a strong influence on my life. My elder brother, who was in the Air Force, was my inspiration. If there was one thing I wanted to do from childhood, it was to become an air-hostess.”

In 1977, Amrita saw an advertisement for recruitment of air-hostesses. Those days, the recruitment was region-wise. “I got selected and, after training, inducted into Indian Airlines”.

“It was no smooth sailing, but the love of the job kept me going,” she recalls.

Talking of that August day, she says, “It was just another day of my routine flight. I always detested morning flights but had to take them in the line of duty. As we were getting ready for the Hyderabad-Delhi flight, a colleague rushed to me and said there was a young girl in tears. When I asked her what the matter was, she said, ‘they got me married to an old man and he is taking me away..”

She was barely 10, recalls Amrita. The rest of the story -- Amrita alerting the cops and the child being rescued -- became national and international news, and a reference point for presence of mind and conscientious action, while on duty.

Significantly, the rescue of Ameena led to a crackdown, with police rescuing minor girls in and around Hyderabad, caught in child bride trafficking. Many brokers and so-called religious leaders were arrested. “The irony is we still learn of such events even now, nearly three decades after the Ameena case,” she says.

Reliving that day, Amrita says, “What started as an incident sucked me into a legal battle. I wanted custody of Ameena and bring her up. However, the court ruled that she goes (to Nari Niketan and then) back to her parents in Hyderabad.

But this was a turning point in my life. The pain and difficulties I had to go through for several months had a disastrous impact on my personal life. My marriage fell apart.” Today, Ameena is married and settled in life. “I would like to meet her,” she says, with moist eyes.

Friends, at high altitude

There are other interesting sidelights, to Amrita’s personality -- like her love of jewellery. “My love for gold, diamonds, is such that I had even the pin given by the airline made in gold. In fact when I had rings on all my fingers, a passsenger commented that for me even 10 fingers are not sufficient,” she remembers, smiling.

She says she was vehemently against the merger of Indian Airlines and Air India, and expressed her views to the management.

Amrita recalls pleasurable interactions with politicians, corporate honchos, film personalities and various sportspersons during her career, including the star-studded Indian Airlines team, which boasted the who’s who of Indian hockey and cricket. “It was a pleasure to get to know the likes of Olympians Aslam Sher Khan, Zafar Iqbal, among others.” She recalls her meetings with ‘Tiger’ Pataudi, and business leaders, many of whom became good friends, during her long career.

Talking of the #metoo movement, she says she too faced sexual harassment which she took in her stride. In all, Amrita served Indian Airlines for 38 years. In her turbulent yet exciting career, she had to face three suspensions and came out stronger to take on new challenges.

Even today, child bride rackets are making the headlines. But what makes the Ameena incident so memorable is the role played by an air-hostess who thought on her feet and cared enough to act with courage and conscience.

Published on March 19, 2019
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