Team India, represented by Hitishaa Goyal and Rasmika Rangarajan from the Indian Schools Debating Society (ISDS), have been crowned champions of the International Competition for Young Debaters (ICYD) 2022. ICYD is the largest international debating tournament for debaters aged 15 or under, and was organised by Oxford University in a hybrid format (a mix of remote and in-person debating) on April 23 this year.
ICYD follows the rules of the British Parliamentary (BP) debate format wherein each debate comprises four teams, with two teams arguing for the topic (referred to as the motion) and two teams arguing against it. Teams are allotted 15 minutes for preparation ahead of every round, with each speaker in the debate getting a maximum of five minutes within which to make their points at ICYD.
For 2022, ICYD saw 48 teams from across the world engaging in sophisticated verbal battles with just four of them making it to the final. Of the four finalists, three were from India, which created a record for the highest representation from a non-Western country at an ICYD final. 2022 also marked the first time that five girls of colour – all from India – were part of the eight debaters speaking in the final. All three of India’s teams were trained by ISDS, a not-for-profit organisation set up in Chennai in 2008 that develops young Indian debaters and sends them for the most prestigious international debating competitions.
“Doing well at ICYD is a reflection of our culture at ISDS. We believe in nurturing potential, in working with kids from when they’re young, creating a culture of discussion and developing debaters over time. It’s really heartening to see that we’re able to better ourselves each year at the competition rather than thinking that winning is the end goal,” said Amritavarshini Venkatesh, the executive director of ISDS.
Extending an impressive legacy
Over the years, ISDS has managed to build a fantastic track record at ICYD, having won the competition at the first attempt in 2017, when the team of Tejas Subramaniam and Harsith Ravichandran bagged the championship, with Tejas adjudged to be the best speaker and Harsith tying for second-best in the standings.
After missing out on the final in 2018, ISDS propelled India into the semi-final in 2019 and the final in 2020. Last year, when ICYD was hosted by Cambridge University (the hosting rights alternate between Oxford and Cambridge annually), India clinched its second title as Karthik Palakodeti and Rohan Seelamsetty, second and sixth on the best speaker tabs, respectively, saw India over the line in the final.
In the 2022 final, the team of Hitishaa (the best speaker of the tournament) and Rasmika (the third-best speaker) joined their fellow debaters from ISDS – Haasini Kellampalli and Ishan Khire (both among the top 10 speakers) as well as Avni Chadha (second-best speaker) and Riya Datta (ninth-best speaker) – along with the Canadian team to debate on the motion, “Western liberal democracies should not trade with countries that do not meet human rights standards”.
As closing opposition, Hitishaa and Rasmika argued that countries that do not abide by human rights need to have a long-term and sustainable shift to democracy, instead of a sudden one compelled by sanctions and the suspension of trade that does not fundamentally alter their institutions. “We explained that implementing sustainable change would be in line with what the people want along with what the institutions would look towards as incentives,” said the 14-year-old Hitishaa, based in Jaipur.
For Hitishaa, who learnt through debating and ISDS that “smart people can also pursue disciplines other than medicine and engineering”, it was not the final but the very first round of ICYD 2022 that was the most challenging. “We were debating on whether religious schools should be banned and were up against another ISDS team in Haasini and Ishan. We knew that if we didn’t do well in the first round, it’d be really easy to get discouraged for the rest of the tournament,” she said.
‘When they finally announced our names as champions, I was on cloud nine’
Rasmika, who is 15 years old and based in Chennai, agreed with Hitishaa in singling out the first debate as the most nerve-wracking of the competition. But as the two of them went through the four preliminary rounds before the final, they became calmer and more precise with their arguments.
Results, however, were not the priority for the eventual champions, as their coach Siddharth Pai, one of several debate trainers at ISDS, pointed out: “As coaches (Siddharth was supported by co-coaches Rohan Grover and Namita Pandey), we were just glad that they were living up to their potential and receiving the verdicts they should’ve been receiving… Prior to the tournament, we had prepared rigorously, training almost every day during the week before the first debate. The drills were often speaker-specific, but the general ones consisted of mock debates, sessions on argumentation and rebuttal techniques alongside working on style, analysis and structure.”
As a contingent, India had opted to debate remotely, which meant that by the time the results of the final were about to be declared, it was past two in the morning in India. “We had our fingers crossed throughout the closing ceremony, and when they finally announced our names as champions, I was on cloud nine,” recalled Rasmika, who admitted that debating from the comfort of their homes was an advantage, even though it meant missing out on meeting other debaters face to face.
‘I don’t think they realise the magnitude of what they’ve achieved’
Apart from the stellar achievements of the six speakers from ISDS in the ICYD final, India had more reason to rejoice as the team of Uday Vir Khosla and Zunaira Husain reached the final of the newcomer category in the same competition. “It’s easy to forget that these are teenagers under immense pressure during a tournament, so I tried to make them feel relaxed by playing games before each round, encouraging them to make friends with the other teams and just keeping their spirits high. When the results came out, I was overwhelmed and immediately got on a video call with the kids, who were so nonchalant about it! I don’t think they realise the magnitude of what they’ve achieved,” said Shruti Deb, co-coach of Uday and Zunaira.
Going forward, all these young debaters and coaches from ISDS have their focus on the World Schools Debating Championships (WSDC), the grandest stage for school debating in the world, where India will hope to reclaim its status as world champions and repeat its historic victory from 2019.