“I have a hat. It is graceful and gives me a certain dignity...Someday I may get up enough courage to wear it, instead of carrying it.” – Erma Bombeck

Over the last one week I have heard the word ‘dignity’ mentioned twice by two of our most important leaders – Asif Ali Zardari and Maulana Fazlur Rahman.

In a TV talk show Maulana Sahib went on a rampage against Imran Khan. He bad-mouthed Khan’s beliefs and values while questioning the religious faith of his children. He then ranted on about the debauchery – “obashi” – that PTI has unleashed on society by allowing young women and men to jointly indulge in political activities such as attending jalsa/meetings, protests or sit-ins. This, the Maulana emphasised, was un-Islamic and in stark contrast to his own “nazriyati” approach in keeping with the Quran and Sunnah (read Mullah Omar and Hakimullah Mehsud).

Now, there is nothing new about that, I guess. After all Imran Khan’s private life has been the favourite topic of discussion for the orthodox JUI, secular MQM and centrist PML-N for quite some time now – as if those casting the stones are the most pious and purest of humans on earth, never having experienced any ‘obashi’ in actions, thoughts or desires. Nauzubillah!

Thus, it was not surprising that Fazlur Rahman, the custodian of our morality, had no qualms in bad-mouthing a person who was not even participating in the show. (Mullahs and politicians are allowed to do such things because...well, because they are mullahs and politicians. Period.)

However, what really took the cake was Maulana’s ‘indignation’ when the anchor questioned Mussarrat Shaheen’s opposition to Maulana’s political values. After appropriately taking Mussarrat Shaheen to task for being a bad woman disowned by her family – and therefore, presumably, not entitled to even basic human dignity – the Maulana finally asked the anchor to refrain from asking such personal questions!!

It was okay for Maulana to indulge in the character assassination of Imran Khan and to make none-too-subtle allusions to Shaheen’s way of life but he was quick to show indignation at a question that brushed the corner of his holy scarf.

The reason the anchor should not have crossed the limits was magnanimously provided by Maulana himself: “You and your colleagues must refrain from asking such questions because I am a politician with a strong belief in dignity (waqar) in politics.”

Now, we must take his word for it because... well, because he is a maulana, and whatever he says has divine sanction. Far be it from me to doubt his credentials but somehow the labels ‘diesel’, ‘riyals’, ‘transport’ and ‘plots’ – along with the words of a Wikileaks cable – keep leaping into my irreligious mind. Astaghfirullah!

A religious politician’s words about the inviolability of his God-given dignity were mirrored by the head of a secular party and the president of the confused-Islamic republic of Pakistan.

Addressing a convention of the people of Fata at the Aiwan-e-Sadr, President Zardari, who generally avoids meeting these people on their home ground, said reforms in Fata were indispensable to ensure rights of the people as they had suffered at the hands of criminals, the Taliban and the drone strikes.

The people from Fata were of course polite enough not to ask why the president, in his ultimate wisdom, refrained from making a substantial headway on any of these issues since 2008. Or why is there no national security strategy or counterterrorism policy?

During the meeting the president expressed the desire “to leave with dignity and honour” on completion of his term. How could he ever doubt that? Does he think that we, the people of Pakistan, have finally picked up the courage to unite and actively take their oppressors to task rather than enjoying TV talk shows?

Does it even matter when some of the brave ones do raise questions about the dignity of the 50,000 dead at the hands of the terrorists? Or the indignity of the Hazara and Karachi killings or the dead bodies and missing persons in Balochistan?

What about civilian deaths in drone strikes? What about the Ahmadis and Christians killed in the name of religion? Were all these people born without human dignity? Are their untimely deaths no matter of concern for the state? Did they not have the right to carry on with their lives with honour? Why has Zardari not made sincere, visible efforts to stem such injustice since 2008?

Does it really matter if such questions are asked? Or does an eternal ‘NRO’ that underpins Pakistan’s social, cultural and political milieu continue to function unabated? For the time being it looks like it, and so Mr President, rest assured the heavens have not fallen. Of course you will walk away with a bagful of dignity and honour.

But where has the honour and dignity that rightfully belonged to the people of Pakistan gone? Over 110 million of them are now facing food insecurity. Today, our economy is in dire straits and like beggars – and in keeping with past traditions – we await the IMF morsels. Our leaders do not have the guts to tax the rich and the politically influential bigwigs. They dare not question the big business bosses and feudal lords even as they have no shame in increasing the burden on the already burdened middle class. Those who cannot earn enough to make ends meet in Pakistan are now, more than ever, unwelcome in other countries that perceive them as either uncouth beggars or potential terrorists.

Today our image in the world is that of a nation that facilitates corruption; tolerates bigotry and injustice; begs for food from others rather than working for it; and plunders its varied natural and financial resources rather than harnessing these for the betterment of our land.

This is the image that our civilian and military policymakers have foisted on us. The sad thing is that we, the people, have not only allowed them to do that but to date remain silent and divided spectators as the powerful forfeit national dignity for personal or institutional gain.

If Swiss banks had lockers containing stashed away dignity and honour of the poor people of Pakistan over the last six decades, these would be heavier than the other ones.

Like Erma’s proverbial hat, our ruling and political elite carry hats that are emblems of either state power or nuisance value in politics. They show them off as trophies and use them to cover their deeds – the kind of deeds which in any other less divided, more educated and self-aware country would be treated with utmost urgency and the severest of punishments.

They wave these hats at the poor to temporarily acknowledge their existence during an election year only to promptly dismiss them. They flip the hats over to turn them into begging bowls so they don’t have to tighten their belts. And when in doubt they discard their hats only to procure newer, more expensive ones.

They never have the moral courage or the political will to wear the hat because wearing it means taking responsibility for the honour of Pakistan and the dignity of its people.