India’s Cautious Debate Environment
India’s Cautious Debate Environment
Debating is on the rise in schools across India, and Indian debaters have reason to be optimistic about the future.
Among the many half-baked generalizations about Indians, there is one with which most would concur - their fondness for an argument. The picture of dinner-table discussions on politics and religion is a charming romanticization, but the tradition of Indian debate holds far greater significance. In the world’s largest and most diverse democracy, the search for consensus is long, hard, and fraught with ideological hostility. Agreeing to disagree is the most important accord we have.
There are a variety of debating formats available in school and college. Most students start out with the Conventional Debating format of pre-prepared speeches, grand rhetoric and obscure quotations. The progression, most likely, would be into Model United Nations - the diplomacy-for-students initiative that took the Indian educational system by storm in the early 2000s. These formats, however, tend to allow for a prioritisation of form over substance, leave interesting and nuanced topics at an inane level of generality and repeatedly emphasise the clash of viewpoints rather than the logic which should determine why one side prevails.
Parliamentary debating is a step up. It involves teams of two or three members, each representing the Affirmative (a.k.a. Government) or Negative (a.k.a. Opposition) side of a motion which is revealed half an hour before the round begins. Teams take it in turn to speak, beginning with the first speaker for the Opening Proposition (known as the Prime Minister) and alternating between the Government and Opposition until each debater has spoken. Speeches are generally timed at seven minutes and are evaluated by a panel of adjudicators (also university students) on the criteria of Matter, Manner and Method. The format requires you to think on your feet and respond to an opponent and allows for very good speakers to often be beaten by logical thinkers. “PD is fluff-free debating”, says Pranay Bhatia, alumnus of IIT-Bombay “[it] allows very little hiding behind confusing words [and] you have to make each step of the argument from very basic ideas, rather than socially common prejudices and beliefs.” Harish Natarajan, formerly a Masters Student in International Relations at the University of Cambridge, also stresses the value in moving past the rhetoric, in that - “[PD] makes you better prepared to analyze issues, but also more critical of the spin that many in Parliament use.” While Parliamentary Debating is generally associated with the university level, school students are increasingly taking to it as well.
India has acquitted itself fairly well in regional debating events. Through the last decade, Indian teams regularly made it into the elimination rounds of events such as the Asian Universities Debating Championships and the All-Asian Intervarsity Debating Championships. This purple patch culminated in a remarkable result at the 15th All-Asians in 2008 which saw an all-Indian final and eight Indian speakers in the tournament’s top ten. The regional success led to the proliferation of parliamentary debating events across India, with organising institutions promising ever-increasing amounts of prize money and wilder social events to corner the market. There is concern, however, that this hasn’t yet translated into performances beyond Asia.
The virtuous cycle caused by the Asian success ensured that in 2010 - when the NALSAR University of Law first considered organising a debate - every debate in India operated on some variant of the Asian format,– with two teams of three members each. As A.S. Vishwajith, now Convenor of the NALSAR Literary & Debating Committee recalls, “We couldn’t just try to go one up with more teams, more money... there were far more established events - the NLS Debate, for example, was in its eighth year. We needed something completely different.”
“Something completely different”, ironically, was British Parliamentary - the default format for parliamentary debating around the world. BP involves four teams of two debaters each - two teams, known as the Opening Proposition and the Closing Proposition argue on behalf of the motion and two more teams, known as Opening Opposition and Closing Opposition, argue against. Rather than competing for a simple win or loss, each of the teams competes against the other three for a ranking at the end of the round. Teams, therefore, have less time (two speakers as opposed to three) to find more nuance (since they have to differentiate themselves even within the same “side”). BP is also the official format of the World Cup of debating - the World Universities Debating Championships. Unsurprisingly, Indian participation at WUDC is limited; no Indian team has ever won it.
That, according to Harish Natarajan, is not a problem of calibre, but of exposure. Apart from the unfamiliarity with the format, the costs of participating at the Worlds are also almost prohibitively high for most Indian students. This problem has been offset somewhat by the introduction of the Asian BP Championships in 2009. Asian BP has seen decent performances from Indian teams, but the lack of a BP-style debate in India continued to hurt them as they competed with teams from Singapore, Malaysia, and Philippines, all of which use the format for local tournaments.
In April 2011, therefore, the NALSAR Inter-Varsity Parliamentary Debating Championships (the “NALSAR I.V.”) brought British Parliamentary debating to India for the first time. A crucial first step was getting an Adjudication Core - a team of experienced debaters who would set motions, match teams, adjudicate crucial rounds and take policy decisions. Moreover, the I.V. 2012 further expands the adjudication pool by inviting adjudicators to apply for registration waivers and travel subsidies allocated on the basis of experience.
2011 saw a Bangalore team crowned Asians BP champions. Registration for the I.V. has doubled from 2011 to 2012, and it is no longer the only BP-format event in India. International participation is also on the rise, providing debaters the experience with a variety of debating cultures, which was sorely missing. There is evidence to suggest that what we are seeing is the beginning of an era. After decades spent on the fringes of world debating, the Indian debating community may finally have cause for cautious optimism.