Pakistan’s social media was in what can only be described as a tizzy earlier this week when news broke of events and altercations at two upscale restaurants in Lahore and Karachi. In the case of the former, a waiter assaulted a customer with a wooden tray after the customer allegedly inquired after an order that had not been fulfilled despite the passage of a considerable amount of time. In Karachi, a would-be diner claimed he had been barred from entering the establishment in question because he arrived on a motorcycle. In both cases, the restaurants concerned were quick to issue clarifications; Rina’s Kitchenette in Lahore apologised unreservedly for the conduct of its employee, and Café Flo in Karachi said that security concerns, rather than economic discrimination, had led to the complainant being denied entry.

In the grand scheme of things, these two incidents are of arguably marginal importance. Yet, they provide a fascinating insight into the dynamics of class privilege and discrimination in Pakistan. On social media, the discussion of these events has followed two basic patterns. In the case of Rina’s Kitchenette, there has been almost universal condemnation of the restaurant’s management for not adequately protecting its patrons, while understandable sympathy for the victim of the attack has been accompanied by anger directed towards the waiter involved in the attack. For Cafe Flo, opinion has been more divided with those complaining about discrimination being matched by many who felt the establishment was correct to take action against a potential threat.

What both of these approaches miss out on, however, is an understanding of why things turned out the way they did. Why, for instance, would a young man working as a waiter suddenly decide to assault a customer? Why would a security guard just happen to assume that someone on a motorcycle would be a security threat? To suggest that the former was nothing more than irrational anger, or that the latter was understandable govern Karachi’s history of petty crime, simply obscures the broader context within which experiences like these take place.

According to Rina’s Kitchenette, the waiter who attacked the customer had only been with the restaurant for a week, but had been hired after a rigorous screening process. The fact that the waiter had a BBA degree was cited in support of the notion that the restaurant had hired someone who could be counted on to be reliable and trustworthy. However, the question of what someone with a BBA was doing waiting tables remains unanswered, and cuts to the core of how class privilege often operates in Pakistan. The contradictions inherent to fine dining in Pakistan (and, indeed, around the world) should be obvious, with poorly paid waiters, cooks, and other staff undertaking difficult and often strenuous work (both physically and mentally) to prepare and serve meals costing as much as their monthly salaries. Working under such conditions is not easy, and the problem is compounded by the sense of entitlement and utter narcissism that remains the hallmark of the elite, many of whom feel no compunction about treating those less fortunate than themselves with complete and utter contempt. Indeed, a visit to any high-end restaurant in Pakistan’s major cities will quickly demonstrate that while money might be able to buy good food, it does not necessarily imbue those who possess it with even basic notions of decency and civility.

Consequently, while it could be argued that nothing justified the attack in Rina’s Kitchenette, and while there is so far no real evidence to suggest that that the victim did anything particularly provocative, it is not too difficult to see how a young man aspiring to better his life through education and hard work might come to experience intense frustration and anger after being unable to do more than work a low paying, dead-end job serving an unending stream of self-involved people strutting around in their fancy cars and clothes. While the ‘respectable’ sections of society reel in shock at the idea that a waiter could attack a customer, it might also be wise to spend some time pondering the broader conditions that might generate the frustrations leading to such an attack in the first place.

A similar dynamic can be seen at work, and perhaps even more clearly so, with Café Flo. Again, if the restaurant’s management was primarily concerned about security, it could have potentially instituted checks through which to screen potential diners before letting them in. More importantly, it is pertinent to ask why only a man on a motorcycle was considered to be a potential criminal when, as some more astute observers have pointed out, the real criminals are often likely to be welcomed at these establishments as they emerge from their luxury jeeps and sports cars. It is difficult to see how anything other than class-based discrimination was at work in this case.

That Pakistan’s elite lives in a bubble is not surprising, but the extent to which this bubble distorts its view of reality should be cause for concern. As the gilded ones move from their nice restaurants to their palatial homes, and from their malls to their parties, they often forget that they live in a society characterised by some of the highest levels of deprivation and poverty in the world, and that their own comfort and security is often premised on the exploitation and dehumanisation of the toiling masses. Routine instances of class-based antagonism – frustrated waiters attacking rich patrons, rich people walling themselves off from everyone else – are symptoms of a deeper, structural problem. In the absence of radical reform aimed at ending inequality and discrimination, wooden trays and motorcyles will be the least of the elite’s concerns when decades of pent-up anger finally boils to the surface.

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

hassan.javid@lums.edu.pk