There’s a new breed of debaters on the rise and they are nothing like the intolerant participants of the shouting matches we’re accustomed to on TV or Parliament.

A good debater is like a magician. He captures your attention the moment he makes his grand entry on stage. With the sheer magic of his words, he spins a web of opinions and facts, gradually disarming you of your skepticism towards him, or the topic underdiscussion.

By the time his act comes to an end on stage, you would find yourself in rapt attention; enamoured by his words, enchanted by his confidence. So powerful is his spell of persuasion that he evokes a myriad of emotions within you — of happiness, surprise, sadness, and optimism.

According to the International Debating Education Association (IDEA), “A debate is a formal contest of argumentation between two teams or individuals.” It exemplifies skills like discipline, tolerance towards opposing views, critical examination of the self, and the ability to conjure up reasoned arguments supported by facts.

A way with words

Unlike what most of us are led to believe (thanks to the delinquent form of debating we see in the Indian Parliament), a debate does not involve or promote shouting matches, derogatory statements, or games of volley-furniture. Instead, a good debate promotes the discussion of pressing issues in the society, while avoiding personal attacks, bias, incriminatory statements and the over-use of emotional appeals.

Above all, a debate is an important tool that lends democracy its voice, i.e., by exercising the freedom of speech and expression. What is more gratifying about a debate is that in most formats, it rarely ever ends in agreement. It merely involves dissecting and analysing different viewpoints on a particular issue, gifting the audience the knowledge and freedom to endorse a viewpoint that they most agree with.

Debating offers a host of benefits to its aficionados too. It helps improve communication skills, research skills, logical thinking, team work, argumentation and public speaking skills. Further, debates lead to the emergence of solutions for the problems prevalent in society, a virtuous compulsion in today’s troubling times.

Sharada Srinivasan, an engineering student at MSRIT, Bengaluru, believes that debates actively encourage people to think outside of normative discourse. An avid debater with several honours and awards to her name, she enjoys debating as it pushes her to acknowledge opposing viewpoints, and engage with them. She says, “Debating makes you think about multiple important current issues ranging from economics to feminism. I think of it as an activity that fosters critical thinking and an inquisitive mindset, a skill set that I think is useful even outside the construct of formal debate.”

There are several formats of debating, one of the most popular formats being the Parliamentary Debate. Under this format, you can find two major sub-divisions on the basis of the number of teams and procedure: the Asian Parliamentary Debate and the British Parliamentary Debate.

Model United Nations (MUN) conferences are another interesting format where students participate as delegates of the United Nations to discuss and debate world issues.

Another form of debating that is quite popular in the West is the Karl Popper Debate, where participants, in teams of three, research on both sides of an issue, put forth their arguments, and ask questions to the opposing team. Besides these, oratory, extempore, and interpretative literary speeches are also considered to fall under the ambit of debates when they include persuasive speaking.

Debates galore

While India does lag behind in terms of the number of international debaters the country produces, it is heartening to know that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Several debating competitions and clubs are sprouting by the day to help groom members into competitive debaters.

The Debate Club, one of India’s first student-run debate societies, is one such initiative. Formed by the students of Bhavan’s Rajaji Vidyashram in 2009, the club aims to develop the debating skills of young speakers, and prepares them for participation in competitions.

Harsha Jayakrishnan, a Std XII student at Bhavan’s Rajaji Vidyashram and the Head of The Debate Club, believes that debate clubs are necessary to give students the required exposure to various debating opportunities and forums. “The Debate Club is an exclusive forum for students. We meet thrice every week after school to discuss ideas, learn the nuances of debating in procedure (British Parliamentary Debates), and indulge in informal debates.

This club is free for all students and only a bonafide certificate is required for registration. Our meeting schedules are pretty flexible too, particularly to help brush up our skills before competitions,” he explains of the cub’s activities.

There are many such debating clubs in colleges across India too, that help students develop their debating skills, and gives them the platform to participate in debating championships, both national and international.

Talking about the debating scene in India, Srivatsan M., a Std XI student at Bhavan’s Rajaji Vidyashram, and the Head of Research & Development, The Debate Club says, “The debating scene is quite happening in India, particularly in Chennai. We do see a lot of participation from students. However, the quality of debates is not refined. Most debaters conduct simplistic research on their topics, fetching ideas from Google and Wikipedia. A debate cannot be a good one if it does not culminate in strong facts and opinions.”

Adds Sharada, “In the last three years that I have actively been involved in parliamentary debating at the university level, the university debating community in India has grown exponentially. New institutions have taken to debating, more tournaments have cropped up in different parts of the country, and institutional participation in general has improved. Every weekend a debating tournament in some part of the country or the other, and in fact, I was choosing between three tournaments last weekend in Mumbai, Pune and New Delhi, all incredibly competitive and well attended.”

If this is the rate of growth of the debating scene in India, then very soon, it won’t be surprising to see debaters from India taking centre stage in international championships.

A good debater…

A good debater is a critical thinker, who is broad-minded and open to opposing views, an excellent communicator, a responsive and engaging speaker, and a person who reads and constantly introspects on his/her worldview. He/she is competitive, inquisitive, and has a strong grasp on current affairs and their broader implications on societal discourse. These days, tournaments work of a power-matching system that progressively tries to pair your teams against teams of similar ability levels. Practising within university debate societies and doing a number of practice debates on a variety of different themed motions is useful. The trick to winning is to be logical, clear, and incisive while making arguments, while responding to your opponent’s arguments as well as possible. Building arguments beyond the level of generality and making it specific to the motion being discussed is crucial. Excellent manner and structure to speeches help as well.

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