As a society, we have become inured to violence. Every day, the news is inundated with reports of bomb blasts in markets, drone strikes, sectarian attacks, and acts of random violence involving rival factions in unspecified ‘disputes’. With acts of violence such as these claiming dozens of lives on a daily basis, it is easy to become de-sensitized to the carnage and to take it as an unavoidable fact of life in the Land of the Pure. Nonetheless, even the most jaded observers cannot, but have felt a certain degree of disgust and indignation upon hearing of the latest atrocity to have taken place in Hafizabad. Last week, following what has been described in the media as a ‘petty’ altercation between a poor wage labourer and two influential local landlords, the latter deliberately ran over the former’s two year old son, Hashir Abdullah, with a tractor. While the unfortunate child managed to survive the assault, he lost both of his feet, leaving him disabled for the rest of his life.

Regardless of the nature of the dispute, it is difficult to even conceive of the type of mindset that could see the murder of a two year old child as being a legitimate means through which to punish someone. Yet, incidents such as this are not simply the outcome of abhorrent actions undertaken by clearly deranged individuals. Instead, this kind of violence is structurally embedded within the social hierarchies presided over by the landowning elite, and constitutes a key mechanism through which their power is perpetuated. While it is certainly the case that Pakistan is no longer a ‘feudal’ country in the strictest sense of the term, largely due to land fragmentation and the development of the capitalist economy, landowners still exercise a tremendous degree of economic, political, and social control over the countryside.

As such, the attack on Hashir Abdullah was not simply an expression of spontaneous rage. Instead, it was an act laden with symbolism, demonstrating the costs of confronting the landlords who perpetrated it, their smug self-assurance that their power and position would shield them from any potential repercussions, and their sense of entitlement with regards to the exercise of complete and total authority in their area. To expect justice in this case would be incredibly naïve. The power of the landed elite is perpetuated through their alliances with the local police and bureaucracy, elements of which are often complicit in these activities. Moreover, even when they are not involved in politics themselves, influential landlords tend to have close connections to provincial, and national level politicians, either through kinship or by facilitating local-level patron-client politics. As is usually the case in Pakistan, the powerful will do what they want while the weak will endure what they must.

The previous week also saw renewed attacks by army personnel on peasants working on the military farms in Okara. This episode of violence was just the latest of many in what has been a longstanding conflict, with the military ostensibly taking action in this instance to reopen water channels that had been blocked by farmers protesting against an arbitrary hike in the rent they were expected to pay. Over the past two decades, tenants on the military farms in Okara have been waging a constant struggle to gain security of tenure and ownership rights over the land they and their families have been cultivating for generations; in response, the military has always responded with violence. While there was an understandable and necessary outcry when deadly force was deployed against Tahir-ul-Qadri’s supporters in Lahore last month, the military’s use of the same tactics against unarmed civilians has been met with a deafening silence.

Despite the differences between the two cases, the attacks in Hafizabad and Okara are both symptomatic of a broader problem, namely the tremendous power differential that exists between those who own and control land and those who do not. Whether it is individuals like the landlords who attempted to kill a two year old child, or state institutions like the army, it is clear that landowners are free to act with impunity, trampling over the rights of their subordinates without fear of consequence. Historically, successive governments have proven themselves to be more than willing to accommodate these transgressions, evinced not only their turning a blind eye to even the most brazen atrocities, but also by the glacial pace at which reforms have been introduced in the areas of tenancy and revenue law. Indeed, as Pakistan’s experience with land reform showed in the 1950s and 1970s, as well as the failure of more contemporary efforts to impose an agricultural income tax, the state has remained unable to effectively impose any kind of meaningful sanctions on the powerful landowning classes. Given that, almost without exception, Pakistan’s political parties remain dependent on influential local landlords to mobilize votes and garner electoral support, the state’s failure to implement reform is not surprising. What this also means, however, is that it would be unrealistic to assume that this state of affairs is likely to change.

At its peak, the Anjuman Muzareen Punjab (Tenants Association of Punjab), the organization at the forefront of the struggle on the Okara Military Farms, claimed to have over 100,000 members. Working outside of a political system that had repeatedly demonstrated that it had no space for articulating and acting upon the demands of the oppressed and the downtrodden, this organization successfully mobilized thousands of farmers, workers, and landless peasants to stand up for their rights, and continues to do so today. While grassroots opposition to the landed elite in Pakistan remains fragmented and sporadic, it is clear that this will have to change if radical reform is to take place. In a context where mainstream politics serves to do little more than protect and pursue the interests of a small, kleptocratic elite, it is only through popular struggle, and the mobilization of the disenfranchised and dispossessed, that injustice of the sort witnessed in Hafizabad and Okara can be combated.

The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS.