Knowledge is power

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For actual, tangible change to happen, the people must continue to arm themselves with knowledge and wisdom, to hold officials accountable beyond the ongoing uprising that’s happening throughout the island. 

When one corrupt government falls, another is bound to take its place. Corruption, mismanagement and injustice are bound to continue, taking new forms, using new words and following new methods. The people must be prepared. 

Power to the people

As stated in the Constitution of the Democratic, Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka:

“In the Republic of Sri Lanka sovereignty is in the People and is inalienable. Sovereignty includes the powers of Government, fundamental rights and the franchise.” [Chapter 1 (3)] 

For the people to exercise their sovereignty effectively, they need to be aware of the laws they live under, their democratic authority and the fundamental rights that they have been guaranteed under the Constitution. 

A person would need to learn the rules of the sport – its strategies and techniques – before stepping onto the field. Doing otherwise would basically be asking for defeat. Similarly, it is through learning how to exercise democratic power and understanding a person’s rights that the people’s sovereignty can be protected. Additionally, the people must be capable in assembling themselves to defend the rights that they are entitled to.

If knowledge is power, then where are we?

If anything, the GotaGoGama (GGG) protests happening not only in Colombo, but throughout the island are clear evidence that a significant number of people are capable and are willing to assemble and organise themselves to defend their rights. Now, the question is how informed the public is on their rights and liberties as citizens of Sri Lanka.

Reaching out to a number of people, it was clear that very few individuals who were not law students had at least a rudimentary awareness of the laws they live under. In fact, hardly anyone had even read the Constitution of Sri Lanka; the fundamental document upon which all Sri Lanka’s laws and liberties are derived from. 

Is Sri Lanka where it is today as a result of this lack of interest by the people on not only political affairs, but also the legal operations of the country? How can one protect and defend their rights, without even knowing what they are?

“I know more about the American Constitution than Sri Lanka’s thanks to how much they talk about it even on popular media,” Pasan shared. “There should be a summarised version of our rights so that people can read it. No one’s going to read technical jargon.”

Becoming ‘legally literate’

Although not everyone needs to be as well-versed with the law to the extent of someone in the legal profession, it’s important that a citizen be aware of his or her rights, the laws that protect them, and the legal resources provided by the legal system that they can make use of to protect themselves. This core competency is often termed as having ‘legal literacy,’ or legal awareness.

Although Sri Lanka has a strong literacy rate, there is still much to be achieved in terms of how aware the public is on matters of law and civic competencies. A common mantra that I would often hear from individuals is ‘no politics,’ with many stating that they have no interest in the political or legal affairs of the country, avoiding any discussion on the matter, even rejecting their opportunity to vote sometimes. 

Of course, this apathy towards civic activity isn’t something new. Since Sri Lanka gained independence, its political power and influence predominantly circulated among what can be called the social elites, and the upper-middle class, while the common everyman was seemingly removed from the equation, either being uneducated or being demoralised from rampant corruption and disregard for rule of law. This and other factors most likely would have played a part in the apathy of the common man in regards to exercising their civic rights. 

A similar divide was identified by German philosopher Jurgen Habermas in his time. He pointed out the divide between social elites – the bourgeoisie, and the common public – the proletariat. This divide was arguably bridged thanks to the development of print media and the dissemination of information. 

While social media and popular media have played a part in making people more aware of fundamental rights, the law of the land, and the importance of civic participation, there is much needed to be done in order to cultivate a legally literate culture, ultimately the first major step in creating effective change in the country.

A disconnect with the people

“Legal literacy is about having an understanding of the law. It’s not about having an academic understanding, it’s for your everyday purposes, at a basic level,” shared Head of Department at the Department of Law of the University of Peradeniya, Professor Deepika Udagama.

“In Sri Lanka, you’ll find people with very high levels of education, who may not necessarily be aware of the law of the land including their constitutional rights, and how the Constitution is supposed to function.”

She revealed that this disparity between the literate and legally literate has continually been observed and studied by academia at the University, and it has been clearly identified that legal literacy is low among the people. “Sometimes, it’s sad to say that even amongst some legal professionals, awareness of how the Constitution works can be rather limited.”

She attributes this people’s lack of interest regarding their constitutional rights to the disconnection between the people and the law. “The average person grows up thinking that only lawyers need to know the law, and you grow up in that vacuum, where you don’t get an understanding of the law,” she explained. As a result, for many, topics such as law, constitutional rights and governance may seem too technical, or complicated to understand.

However, she notes that in strong democracies, civic education, and the study of constitutional rights and concepts of the law is heavily emphasised, and introduced to children from a young age.

Education is key

“Even though the law is such an integral part of our lives, it’s still not taught in schools,” Prof. Udagama pointed out. “There are very few disciplines that involve teaching law and that also in tertiary education. What we want is to expose children at a young age to the law of the land. Basic principles and facts about the law should be taught at a young age, and as the education progresses, young people should be taught how governments are organised and run, the fundamental principles of the Constitution, the rights of the people, and how one defends one’s rights when they are in threat of violation.”

Of course, including it in the curriculum is only the first step. Prof. Udagama agrees that the said material should also be presented and taught in creative ways to inspire students, instead of merely covering subject material for an examination.

She notes that India has been very effective in its educational system in this regard. “Children in India are introduced to their Constitution at a very young age, and are taught the preamble to their Constitution.

“The preamble to any constitution reveals a very clear explanation of its fundamental principles. As a result, children learn that India is a democracy, that it is a federal nation, and that it’s a secular republic.” Even though these young children aren’t fully aware of or able to grasp these concepts, as a result of their education, these concepts don’t feel foreign, and understanding is developed with maturity.

“At a very young age we are taught about personal hygiene,” she continued. “We grow up knowing that we should boil our drinking water, clean our fingernails, and bathe regularly. We are initiated into health education at a young age, and as a result it has become integrated into our thinking.

“In contrast, I don’t see any similar effort being taken with regards to law. Yes, you may be taught to follow the school rules and its disciplinary system, but there is no relationship to the outside world, to civic life. We are taught in our schools largely to be future employees at our schools, not to be good citizens.”

Consumers over citizens

She notes that education and the competition to obtain one has become a race to obtain a better standard of living over becoming a more capable citizen. “Quite often, the competition to become doctors, engineers, lawyers and so on, is about finding a good standard of living, and to a great extent it’s about consumerism. It’s a competition to go to the better school, drive the better car, have the better house, and of course, the better job. It’s not about becoming a better citizen or being of service to the nation.”

A pivotal moment for change

It is in these circumstances that the citizens’ uprising has sprung forth, an unprecedented awakening of the people on the importance of exercising the right to peacefully assemble and protest against the Government’s disastrous mismanagement and corruption.

“These young people, who have also gone through this formal education system, consist of many who have obtained their education through public schools. I don’t think they have been majorly exposed to ideas of citizenship and civic consciousness.

“What I think has made the difference is the fact that they have been exposed to social media. It’s possible that through social media, they have been able to pick up all these dimensions of governance, constitutional issues, human rights, rule of law and more. That’s my guess, but we really need to understand this more. Although what’s more important right now is the crisis that the country is facing at the moment, eventually we have to study the complexion of this youth movement.”

Prof. Udagama praised the level of creativity and ingenuity that the youth protestors have displayed over the past month of protests. “To me, as someone who has been involved with young adults all my life, what I see unfolding about this peaceful, non-political, inclusive, and intensely democratic protest movement is incredible. It’s truly fascinating.”

She also applauded the use of political satire by the protestors. “Political satire can be more effective than a bullet,” she shared. “It can hit hard, and these methods are obviously things that they haven’t learnt in school. I think it is other media that the younger generation have been exposed to that has given them this edge. This isn’t something brought about by formal education.”

More in-depth than you think

Both online and offline, there are conversations regarding the overall movement, with some criticising that the statements and stances taken by the protestors lack depth and understanding of the true political situation of the country.

“You can’t expect great depth, because they have arisen as a result of the necessity of the moment, but they are learning, very fast at that. There are also quite a number of university and law students involved. Despite the lack of a deep philosophical understanding of these subjects, they have grasped the gist of the principles, and they are handling it very well. Additionally, there is a thirst to know more, to bring about better change.”

For a better future

Even after the attack on GGG, whilst civil unrest spread throughout the country, the protestors at the protest site remain non-violent, and true to their convictions, continually protested against the failed regime to step down, for a better, united and just tomorrow.

Prof. Udagama notes that even though campaigns for developing legal literacy among the people have existed, it is only now that interest in such topics has increased. “There’s interest when you see its relevance to life,” she explained. “Now, the citizen in us has come out, because now our eyes are open to how important it is to organise the system of our Government well.

“Right now, it’s a turning point. We need to take this citizen’s movement forward. This shouldn’t be just one moment, but a constant fact in our life.”

She noted that many active citizens who have spent their lives fighting for a more aware and vigilant society through active citizenship, observe this peoples’ awakening with great joy, and with the conviction that this needs to be the cement that binds people together in a democratic society. This is the potential turning point for a more democratic Sri Lanka.

By Shanuka Kadupitiyage