Winners speak

The team from IIT-Bombay that made the nation proud: Souradip Sen (left) and Ritvik Chauhan.

The team from IIT-Bombay that made the nation proud: Souradip Sen (left) and Ritvik Chauhan.

The 34th edition of the World Universities Debating Championships (WUDC), world’s largest and most prestigious debating competition, was hosted in Chennai by Rajalakshmi Engineering College (REC) in its campus.

Held between December 27, 2013 and January 4, 2014, the event attracted the world’s best debaters and adjudicators from over 70 countries. For the first time ever, a team from South Asia cleared the Preliminary rounds (prelims), making their way to the Knockout rounds, a rare feat.

Souradip Sen, a mechanical engineering student, and Ritvik Chauhan, an energy science and engineering student, speak about their experience and share the highlights of their stint at the WUDC.

How would you describe your experience at WUDC?

Souradip: This was the first time I debated outside the Asian Circuit and my second international tournament overall. So, the experience was unique in providing exposure to the various styles of debating, along with an opportunity to go toe-to-toe with the traditional debating behemoths such as Oxford, Cambridge, and Sydney.

The most satisfactory feature of our stint was that we managed to go the distance, and made it to the knockout stages of the World Championships. We were optimistic about our chances of going forward in the tournament. Sadly, we lost out narrowly at the Octo-Finals (Top 32) stage, due to a tactical error on our part.

The overall experience was incredible, and debating in the knockout rounds in front of the home crowd was one of the highlights of the trip.

Ritvik: WUDC Chennai was my first World Championship as a speaker, but my second overall. It was definitely a better experience, debate-wise. Out of 350-400 teams, we finished 38th on tabs after nine prelims. We had secured the last two points in the last prelim round in a high pressure situation with reputed institutions like Oxford and the University of Sydney in the same round as us.

Critical for us was Round 5. We were with powerhouses such as Stanford, Cornell, and TC Dublin. We were Opening Government (OG), which is statistically the least successful position to debate from.

But OG has traditionally been a strong position for Souradip and me. So after a haphazard preparation time of 15 minutes, Souradip managed to deliver a solid opening speech heavy on matter and analysis. This allowed me to substantiate further in our second speech.

We were delighted when we heard the verdict of the round — we had got first place in the room in an extremely formidable scenario.

What were the good and bad points of your debating stint at WUDC?

Souradip: The general air of negativity due to a series of appalling organisational mistakes by the REC administration was a huge dampener. There was very little time to relax after a gruelling day of debating simply because schedules were not adhered to and the “socials” were terrible. Non-payment of judges leading to a threat of a strike, an accident leading to a broken foot (because the bus driver fell asleep at the wheel), and an unbelievably sexist opening ceremony left a bitter taste in the mouth.

Ritvik: Besides debating, the greatest feeling was carrying the Indian tri-colour to the WUDC knockout rounds. Losing the Octo-final was extremely disappointing. We had come far and felt we had it in us to make it further, but let ourselves down.

Another disconcerting factor was the level of regional and racial bias present at WUDC. Traditionally, strong institutions from predominantly White, English-speaking nations are at an advantage as we would only later realise.

Why do you think Indian teams never excel in such international tournaments?

Ritvik: At WUDC, the strongest reason is racial and regional bias. There are several problems and challenges within Indian debating set-up as well. Debate societies aren’t well funded here. We have to pay our own way and offset expenses by winning the prize money. For this reason, debaters are often put off from attending international tournaments.

Moreover, Indian debating suffers from the fact that transfer of knowledge from senior batches to those below them is extremely informal. This makes it difficult for institutions to consistently perform well. Very few, if any, debate societies in India have full time coaches, or any institutional backing.

Souradip: The most successful debating institutions also have fairly supportive administrations. Indian colleges haven’t identified value in funding debate teams that represent their institution.

Familiarity with judges is hugely advantageous because it’s easier to “buy” arguments when they are phrased in a manner you are familiar with. Lack of conviction can also be attributed to the failure of Indian teams in international debating forums. The psychological barrier was a significant factor for us going into Rounds 8 and 9. Hopefully, our success will prove to be the required catalyst to other aspiring debaters from India.

According to you, what are the qualities of a good debater?

Ritvik: In terms of debating skills, each speaker’s position requires different skill sets. But in general, it is important for debaters to be able to think logically and analytically so as to be able to come up with a defensible case for often difficult, yet interesting topics in just 15 minutes of preparation time. A detached perspective on the debate as well as empathy with the judges always helps. But one of the most important skills is response — the ability to quickly manage to come up with a rebuttal to a previous speaker.

In terms of temperament, it is important for debaters never to panic or to let pressure of the occasion to cloud your thinking. Knowing how to deal with a defeat (sometimes, even unjust defeat) is extremely important.

The best debaters always introspect after a loss, and try and figure out how they could’ve been better, and work on their areas of weakness after determining them through feedback.

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