Operation Fair Play

Operation Fair Play was the code name for the 5 July 1977 coup by Pakistan Chief of Army Staff General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, overthrowing the government of Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.[1] The coup itself was bloodless, and was preceded by social unrest and political conflict between the ruling leftist Pakistan Peoples Party government of Bhutto, and the right-wing Islamist opposition Pakistan National Alliance which accused Bhutto of rigging the 1977 general elections. In announcing the coup, Zia promised "free and fair elections" within 90 days, but these were repeatedly postponed on the excuse of accountability and it was not until 1985 that ("party-less") general elections were held. Zia himself stayed in power for 11 years until his death in a plane crash.

Operation Fair Play
Date5 July 1977

Successful coup

  • Zulfikar Ali Bhutto ousted out of power
Pakistan Government of Pakistan Pakistan Pakistan Armed Forces
Commanders and leaders
Pakistan Zulfikar Ali Bhutto Pakistan Gen. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq
Akhtar Abdur Rahman
Khalid Mahmud Arif
Zahid Ali Akbar

The coup was a watershed event in the Cold War and in the history of the country. The coup took place nearly six years after the 1971 war with India which ended with the surrender of Pakistan and the liberation of Bangladesh. The period following the coup saw the "Islamisation of Pakistan" and Pakistan's involvement with the Afghan mujahideen (funded by the US and Saudi Arabia) in the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan.


The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) came in power after the general elections held in 1970. The power was given to PPP after the devastating war with India which ended with the secession of East-Pakistan.[2] Proponents of social democracy, left-wing philosophy, and socialist orientation was encouraged by the government and such ideas slowly entered in the ordinary lives of the people.[2]

According to some authors and historians, some influential groups were not ready to accept the PPP's taking power in 1971.[2] In 1972–74, the intelligence community had thwarted more than one attempt by the military officers to oust the civilian PPP government; all cases were heard by JAG legal branch of the Pakistan military. In 1976, Prime Minister Bhutto forcefully retired seven army generals to promote Lieutenant-General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq to four-star rank and subsequent appointment as chief of army staff and General Muhammad Shariff as chairman joint chiefs. Reciprocating in the same period, General Zia invited Bhutto of becoming the first and only civilian Colonel Commandant of the Armoured Corps.

1977 general elections and political crisesEdit

In 1976, nine religious and conservative parties formed a common platform, called Pakistan National Alliance (PNA).[2] In January 1977, Prime Minister Bhutto immediately started campaigning after called for new general elections.[2] The PNA was united behind religious slogans and a right-wing political agenda.[2] The PPP, on the other hand, campaigned on a platform of social justice in agriculture and industry. Despite large turnouts at PNA campaign events and the establishment on PNA's circle, the results of the general elections showed the Pakistan Peoples Party winning 155 out of 200 seats in the National Assembly and the PNA winning only 36. Bhutto therefore gained a supermajority in the Parliament.[2]

The PNA leadership was astonished when the results were announced by the Election Commission (EC) and refused to accept the results and accused the Government of systematic rigging.[2] According to "The Story of Pakistan",

At many places, particularly where the PNA candidates were strong, the polling was alleged to have been blocked for hours. There were also reports that PPP armed personnel in police uniforms removed ballot boxes. Marked ballot papers were also found on the streets in Karachi and Lahore. Rumors quickly circulated that the results in key constituencies were issued directly from the Prime Minister's office.[3]

According to author Ian Talbot, "The reality seems to be that a certain PPP victory was inflated by malpractice committed by local officials, which may have affected 30–40 seats."[4]

The PNA immediately called for street boycott and demanded resignation of Prime Minister Bhutto.[2] The PNA used mosques to agitate the masses and caused severe civil unrests. At least 200 people were killed in the clashes between security forces and demonstrators.[5]

Zia had already removed Bhutto Loyalists, and had put to military trial one of the biggest names in Pakistan Army history; General Tajammul Hussain Malik war hero 1965 & 1971 to show Bhutto his loyalty. This did, however decrease his support within the army and it is believed several factions of the army that sided with Gen. Tajammul later caused Gen Zia's death.[citation needed]

Bhutto responded with the use of Federal Security Force (FSF) and Police to control the situation as many activists of PNA were imprisoned.[2] One leader of the PNA secretly wrote a letter to chiefs of staff of armed forces and chairman joint chiefs to intervene to end the crises; thus inviting armed forces to enforce martial law.[2]

In 1977, one official of the Military Intelligence (MI) had persuaded Prime Minister Bhutto that martial law was imminent, and to speed up the negotiations with the PNA. The PPP realised the seriousness of the crises and political negotiations were started in June 1977. The PPP accepted almost all demands of the PNA and the stage was set for a compromise. The negotiations were stalled when Bhutto took the lengthy tour of Middle East countries and the PNA termed his tour as dilatory tactics. Furthermore, there was an impression created in the print media that negotiations were falling apart.[6][page needed]

After the letter reached to the chiefs of staff of armed forces and chairman joint chiefs, there was a fury of meeting of inter-services to discuss the situation.[6] When Bhutto returned to the country and in spite of the agreement was about to sign with the PNA.[6] The military staged a coup against Bhutto to end the political crises.


Operation Fair Play was the code name for the military coup d'état conducted on 5 July 1977 by Pakistan Chief of Army Staff General Zia-ul-Haq, overthrowing the government of Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. The pretext for the coup was the failure of the ruling PPP and the opposition PNA to reach an agreement regarding fresh elections. The code name Fair Play was intended to portray the coup as the benign intervention of an impartial referee to uphold respect for the rules and ensure free and fair elections.[7]

In announcing the coup, Zia promised "free and fair elections" within 90 days.[8] He arrested Bhutto and his ministers, as well as other leaders of both the PPP and the PNA.[9] He dissolved the National Assembly of Pakistan and all provincial assemblies, suspended the Constitution, and imposed martial law.[10] A four-member Military Council, made up of Chief of Army Staff General Zia-ul-Haq as Chief Martial Law Administrator, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, and the Chiefs of the Navy and the Air Force, took over government operations in the country.[11]

Bhutto and the PPP was persecuted on the charges of murder of political opponents.[6][page needed]

Supreme CourtEdit

The Supreme Court and the Chief Justice of Pakistan Anwar-ul-Haq legitimatised the military response after issuing the Doctrine of necessity orders.[6] On 24 October 1977, the Supreme Court began the trial against Bhutto on charges of "conspiracy to murder" Nawab Muhammad Ahmed Khan Kasuri.[12]

In 1977, the Supreme Court found Bhutto guilty of murder charges and condemned him to death.[6] Despite appeals of clemency sent by many nations, the government upheld the Supreme Court verdict and followed the Supreme Court orders when Bhutto was hanged in 1979.[6]

Soviet Union and United StatesEdit

When the martial law took place, the whole world was quiet, and regional countries (such as India and China) did not issue any statements. Only two countries issued the statements over this issue.[6] The USSR did not welcome the martial law and Bhutto's subsequent execution. The USSR harshly criticised the coup and Leonid Brezhnev condemned Bhutto's execution out of "purely humane motives".[13]

The US played an ambiguous role instead with many charging that the martial law was imposed with the willingness and "tacit"[14] approval of the US and the CIA's involvement.[14]

When allegations were leveled against the US by Pakistani historians and scholars, US officials reacted angrily and held Bhutto responsible for his act.[6] Despite US denial, many authors, and the PPP's intellectuals themselves,[15] held the US responsible and suspected the US of playing a "hidden noble role" behind the coup.[15]

In 1998, Benazir Bhutto and the PPP publicly announced their belief in the electronic media that Zulfikar Bhutto was "sent to the gallows at the instance of the superpower for pursuing the nuclear capability [of Pakistan]."[16]


Before the third martial law in 1977, Pakistan had been under martial law for nearly 13 years and saw the wars with India which led to the secession of East Pakistan. The Martial law endured the toxic legacies of General Zia-ul-Haq's eleven years of authoritarian rule. It was marked by numerous human rights violations.[6] A weak insurgent movement against General Zia's government was maintained inside the country by elements sympathetic to the former Bhutto government, but was met with great hostility from the United States and General Zia.[6][page needed]

The martial law of 1977 ended in 1988 with the death of President Zia-ul-Haq and many other key military administrators in the government. Following this event, the country returned to democracy and the PPP again came in power. In 1999, military rule was again imposed against Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif by the armed forces, resulting in General Pervez Musharraf coming to power for nine years.


  1. ^ Bhutto, Zulfikar Ali. If I am assassinated (PDF) (1 ed.). Lahore: PPP. Retrieved 22 September 2017.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k "Ouster of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto". Story of Pakistan. 1 January 2003. Retrieved 4 July 2013.
  3. ^ "General Elections 1977". Story of Pakistan. 1 June 2003. Retrieved 14 December 2014.
  4. ^ Talbot, Ian (1998). Pakistan, a Modern History. NY: St.Martin's Press. pp. 240–1. ISBN 9780312216061.
  5. ^ Talbot, Ian (1998). Pakistan, a Modern History. NY: St.Martin's Press. pp. 241. ISBN 9780312216061.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Haqqani, Hussain (2005). Pakistan:Between Mosque and Military; §From Islamic Republic to Islamic State. United States: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (July 2005). pp. 395 pages. ISBN 978-0-87003-214-1.
  7. ^ Haqqani 2005, p. 126
  8. ^ Haqqani 2005, p. 123
  9. ^ Hyman, Anthony; Ghayur, Muhammed; Kaushik, Naresh (1989). Pakistan, Zia and After--. New Delhi: Abhinav Publications. p. 30. ISBN 81-7017-253-5.
  10. ^ Dossani, Rafiq; Rowen, Henry S. (2005). Prospects for Peace in South Asia. Stanford University Press. pp. 42, 49. ISBN 978-0-8047-5085-1.
  11. ^ Hyman, Ghayur & Kaushik 1989, pp. 138–139: "Mr Fazal Elahi Chaudhry has very kindly consented to continue to discharge his duties as President of Pakistan ... To assist him in the discharge of his national duties, a four-member Military Council has been formed. The Council consists of the Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Chiefs of Staff of the Army [Zia], Navy, and Air Force. I will discharge the duties of the Chief Martial Law Administrator."
  12. ^ Frank, Katherine (2002). Indira: The Life of Indira Nehru Gandhi. USA: Houghton Mifflin. p. 438. ISBN 0-395-73097-X.
  13. ^ Kamminga, Menno T. (1992). Inter-State Accountability of Violation of Human Rights. University of Pennsylvania, U.S.: University of Pennsylvania Press. pp. 19–198. ISBN 978-0-8122-3176-2.
  14. ^ a b Panhwar, Member of Sindh Provincial Assembly., Sani (5 April 1979). "CIA Sent Bhutto to the Gallows". The New York Times (article published in 1979) and Sani H. Panhwar, member of Sindh Provincial Assembly and Party representative of Pakistan People's Party. Archived from the original on 14 January 2012. Retrieved 23 August 2011. "I [Ramsey Clark] do not believe in conspiracy theories in general, but the similarities in the staging of riots in Chile (where the CIA allegedly helped overthrow President Salvadore Allande) and in Pakistan are just too close, Bhutto was removed from power in Pakistan by force on 5 July, after the usual party on the 4th at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, with U.S. approval, if not more, by General Zia-ul-Haq. Bhutto was falsely accused and brutalized for months during proceedings that corrupted the Judiciary of Pakistan before being murdered, then hanged. As Americans, we must ask ourselves this: Is it possible that a rational military leader under the circumstances in Pakistan could have overthrown a constitutional government, without at least the tacit approval of the United States?".
  15. ^ a b Bhurgari, Abdul Ghafoor. "The Falcon of Pakistan". Abdul Ghafoor Bugari. Abdul Ghafoor Bugari and Sani Penhwar, Member of Parliament. Retrieved 26 January 2012.[permanent dead link]
  16. ^ Malick, Nasir Malick (10 May 1998). "Benazir vows to fight on people's side". DawnWireService (DWS). Retrieved 17 November 2011.