Unleashing the Potential of Political Literacy for Informed Participation: Lessons learned from “Aragalaya 2022”


According to Bertolt Brecht, “The worst illiterate is the political illiterate; he doesn’t hear, doesn’t speak, nor participates in political events. He does not know the cost of life, the price of beans, fish, flour, rent, shoes, and medicine; all depends on political decisions. The political illiterate is so ignorant that he proudly avoids politics. The fool does not realize that, from his political ignorance, arise prostitutes, abandoned children, and the worst thieves of all, the corrupt politicians, flunkies of national and multinational companies.” This quote illustrates how political literacy is vital for existence, stability, and progress in society.

Before delving into political literacy, it is crucial to understand literacy itself. UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics defines literacy as “the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate, and compute using printed and written materials within various contexts. Literacy encompasses a continuum of learning that enables individuals to achieve their goals, develop knowledge, and participate fully in their community and society, including numeracy, the ability to make simple arithmetic calculations. Political literacy extends beyond basic literacy, involving essential competencies and knowledge for active citizen engagement in governance. It requires comprehending how government functions, understanding fundamental societal challenges, and possessing critical thinking skills to appreciate diverse perspectives. Political literacy includes voting for elected representatives, attending public meetings, researching and evaluating candidates, understanding elected officials’ roles, contributing to legislation, and identifying plans affecting taxation and governance. Ultimately, it equips individuals with the tools to actively participate in government and make informed decisions.

Political literacy is crucial for citizens to exercise their human, constitutional, and political rights effectively. For example, individuals have the right to choose public representatives and engage in referendum. These rights are enshrined in conventions as well as in treaties. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), in Article 21, emphasizes every person’s entitlement to participate in their nation’s governance, either directly or by electing representatives. It also guarantees equal access to governmental services within their country. Additionally, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), in Article 25, emphasizes every citizen’s right to participate in public affairs, vote, be elected in genuine elections, and access public services on an equal basis. In the Sri Lankan context, the 1978 Constitution states in Article 3 that sovereignty resides in the people and is inalienable. Sovereignty includes governmental powers, fundamental rights, and franchise rights. The legislative power rests with Parliament, consisting of elected representatives and, when necessary, the people through referendums. The President, elected by the people, exercises the executive power, including national defense. Judicial power is wielded by Parliament through the court system. In essence, the people exercise the entire administrative, legislative, executive, and judicial system through their franchise.

Political literacy not only empowers individuals to make crucial decisions but also holds government policies accountable. People’s representatives are answerable to the public, who have the right to question the credibility and accuracy of decisions made by those in power. Therefore, political literacy empowers individuals to influence the governing system for the better. An example of people demanding their rights can be seen in the first half of ‘Aragalaya 2022’ [English term is “struggle”] in Sri Lanka, which was driven by the best interest in demanding justice. In the initial part of ‘Aragalaya 2022,’ a peaceful protest occurred where people, irrespective of their social class, status, religion, or ethnicity, took to the streets to demand answers regarding the fate of their money, protest against financial mismanagement, and address the economic crisis. This historic moment marked a landmark juncture in the political atmosphere where people questioned the people in power as to why they breached trust and misused their power by holding them accountable. This is a fine example, which demonstrates how political literacy goes beyond voting. ‘Aragalaya 2022’ was a lesson learned for people in power as well as for those who are yet to come into power because they understood how much strength and power people bear in them.

However, when looking deeper, ‘Aragalaya 2022’ was an outcome of prolonged hardships where people burst out their bottled-up anger. The genuine ‘Aragalaya 2022,’ which is the first part of it, was a resultant effect of inflation, the rise in commodity prices, prolonged power cuts, long fuel queues, food insecurity, as well as the country’s indebtedness. One single incident cannot be judged as the best example of political literacy. The issue is whether people will react the same way if their basic needs are covered but long-term goals are concealed. Will people be prudent enough to prioritize sustainability? In reality, the majority of people are unaware of their fundamental rights and their potential to thrive genuinely. This also results in people being manipulated to follow the majority’s demands rather than influencing positively.

The question is, does being politically literate mean being anti-governmental or a fan of the opposition. Unfortunately, this is the perception: you criticize because you are not a part of it, and on the other hand, you cannot question because you choose them. For this, a change in attitude is vital. This highlights that political literacy is incomplete and requires a lot of attention and necessary action. To achieve a more complete understanding of political literacy, it is imperative to look into existing hurdles, security implications, and to consider possible recommendations. One of the key hurdles is the challenge of digitalization and its impact on information space. In today’s digitalized world, content can be accessed anytime without any trouble, making it easier for some individuals to engage in hate speech, disinformation, and false news regarding governmental decisions and national security concerns. Such actions can destabilize the stability and security of the country. Therefore, both the public and people in power must be equipped with the necessary skills to recognize what is false and what is not. To achieve this, instilling information literacy and digital literacy must be a priority. These skills will contribute to social cohesion and reduce the likelihood of civil unrest or conflicts. Governments should encourage community engagement and ensure access to information, which are essential steps towards a politically literate society. Furthermore, it is essential to empower the youth and foster critical thinking skills. Empowered youth are an asset to society and a shield against security failure since they will be future leaders, decision-makers, as well as an informed public. In addition, fostering an environment of open dialogue and constructive criticism is indispensable. Encouraging citizens to engage in respectful and empathetic discussions, even when they hold opposing opinions, will lead to a more informed and rational society. Such engagement in constructive criticism, rather than mockery, contributes to the growth of political literacy and a stable country.

Charani Patabendige
Charani Patabendige
Charani LCM Patabendige is a Research Assistant and an Acting Research Analyst at the Institute of National Security Studies (INSS), the premier think tank on National Security established under the Ministry of Defence. The opinion expressed is her own and not necessarily reflective of the institute or the Ministry of Defence.