ISDS: The Organisation Behind India’s Rise as Debating World Champions

In 2019, the same year in which India’s men’s cricket team crashed out of the semi-finals of the ICC Cricket World Cup in heartbreaking fashion, an Indian team of school students became world champions – world champions of debating at the 2019 World Schools Debating Championships (WSDC) in Bangkok.

It was the first time in the country’s history that Team India had earned the moniker of being the best debating nation in the world, an achievement that would have been impossible without the tireless efforts of the Indian Schools Debating Society (ISDS).

“We started out as a bunch of around 20 kids from five schools in Chennai in 2008. The goal back then was to send an Indian contingent to the WSDC tournament,” recollects Amrithavarshini Venkatesh, 27, the executive director of ISDS.

Amrithavarshini Venkatesh. Photo: special arrangement

Financed by the Ramco group, ISDS had a small reach for the first few years of its existence, recruiting almost exclusively from Chennai to try and make a mark at the WSDC, the most prestigious international debating platform for school students between 14 and 19 years of age.

“The valuable skills that students picked up during debates, including research, broadening of understanding on various themes, critically analysing information, synthesising new views, and articulating them with ease convinced us to formalise ISDS,” says Nirmala Raja, who, along with her husband P.R. Venketrama Raja, has been instrumental in setting up ISDS.

After debuting at the WSDC in 2008, the ISDS-trained Indian team did not make it to the knockouts stages for the first two years. Then, in 2010, something changed.

“I came in last minute to coach Team India, literally meeting the debaters two days before the tournament started,” says Sayeqa Islam, who has been associated with ISDS in some capacity or the other over the last decade.

Sayeqa Islam. Photo: special arrangement

“Before the tournament, no country wanted to spar with us in friendlies because they thought we were novices, a waste of time…But I couldn’t help falling in love with the team. They were like a little group of ducklings, half the size of the other teams, and so enthusiastic about everything, apart from the food in Doha,” continues Islam, 37, whose full time role is in the education sector with Ark.

With Islam at the helm, India qualified for the knockouts for the first time in their history. Soon enough, the narrative around Team India started changing.

“From 2016, ISDS started expanding, as we began to recruit debaters from other parts of the country. Prior to that, we simply did not have the resources to upscale,” explains Varshini.

As part of its recruitment process for the WSDC, ISDS organises countless debates in numerous schools across Indian cities, which are followed by zonal selections and national selection camps. But the process is not hassle-free.

“It can be difficult to explain to schools what the WSDC format is all about,” believes Shruti Deb, a business development intern at ISDS. Deb continues: “When speaking to teachers and the administration at schools we want to collaborate with, we emphasise on the team dynamics involved in World Schools debating, which usually yields a greater quality of public speaking than the conventional Oxford format or the one-on-one nature of Lincoln-Douglas debates.”

The victorious Team India contingent trained by ISDS in 2019. Photo: special arrangement.

Most of the coaching personnel at ISDS, including Islam, provide their services on a voluntary basis, without seeking any remuneration. Often, ISDS alumni return to train the next generation of speakers, devoting hours on end every week.

One such alumnus who returned to coach the 2021 team is Tejas Subramaniam, a 19-year-old student of math and economics at Stanford University. Subramaniam was part of India’s winning contingent in 2019 and even bagged the overall best speaker prize at the WSDC, another first for India.

“My favourite memory of 2019 is from round five of the tournament when we came up against South Africa. We were debating whether postcolonial societies should use Truth and Reconciliation Commissions (TRCs). It was an unlucky draw for us- if there was any team in the competition who knew about TRCs, it was South Africa. But we still managed to win the debate, coming up with some pretty novel ideas for why TRCs might actually do more harm than good,” says Subramaniam.

“Our arguments were premised on the fact that even if TRCs were successful in South Africa, they would have led to problems in other societies. For example, we argued that TRCs may trigger more conflict because people dissatisfied with amnesty can be motivated to engage in vigilantism. It could also lead to a situation where people who are guilty of war crimes go unpunished and those who chose to participate in conflict in spite of holding positions of power end up retaining their public influence,” elaborates Subramaniam.

After getting the better of South Africa in the fifth round, India found their top gear and sailed to the final where they met Canada on the motion: “This house regrets the glorification of soldiers as heroes.” Arguing in favour of the motion, Team India’s case was built on how glorification ensures less accountability for soldiers who “upon assuming they can do no wrong in the eyes of their compatriots are likely to act with more impunity on the ground.”

Taking that argument forward as part of the triumphant 2019 team was Bhavya Shah (also at Stanford University right now), the first visually impaired debater to represent Team India. Shah’s best moment from 2019 was “eliciting laughs for my Avengers jokes during my quarter-finals speech!”

“Debating has taught me that the world is more nuanced and less black-and-white than we admit,” acknowledges Shah.

The legacy left by the likes of Subramaniam and Shah is being carried forward by the latest pool of ISDS debaters. Among them are Rohan Seelamsetty, best speaker and winner of the International Competition for Young Debaters (ICYD) in 2020 and 2021, respectively, and Ananya Ganesh, captain of the winning team at ICYD in 2021.

No longer underdogs at the WSDC, Indians are now part of a group of dark horses that has been performing consistently over the last few years. Alongside Singapore, Canada, Pakistan, Hong Kong, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines, India have put up commendable performances against the “old guard” of WSDC debating, chiefly Australia and England.

At the 2021 Macau Online WSDC tournament, India once again made it to the knockouts, beating England before bowing out to the Philippines in the pre-quarters. The motion for the pre-quarters debate, extremely relevant in an age where data is the new oil, read: “This House will ban users from selling their data to companies in exchange for financial returns.”

Since the summer of 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic and the toll it has taken on India has also had an impact on ISDS. Accelerating its expansion goals from before the pandemic, the last two years have seen ISDS host virtual masterclasses by alumni who are subject experts.

Debaters share a light moment during an ISDS virtual masterclass. Photo: special arrangement.

As part of its long-term plans, ISDS has already started organising workshops and crash courses on debating and creating development squads to grow a talent pool for the future. “The goal is to get young minds in India familiarised with the concept of debating early on…To that end, we don’t want to restrict ourselves to the WSDC format. We want exposure for debating as a concept and we are willing to explore innovative options, such as a web series that we are working on right now that will have debaters taking on each other in a simple yet entertaining one-on-one format,” adds Varshini.

Reaching out to more under-resourced schools across the country is also part of ISDS’s blueprint going forward, as is the desire to enter the arena of vernacular debating.

“The ultimate dream, though, is to have debating incorporated into India’s educational curriculum in the same way that students learn debating through literature and verbal reasoning in Canada, Singapore, or the United Kingdom,” observes Islam.

To do this, ISDS must provide greater visibility to debate and debaters in India, something it kickstarted by hosting India’s first ever international debate tournament, the Mini Worlds competition, in 2019.

“For me, that was the best moment of my entire time at ISDS. Just before we kicked off, Varshini asked me to address the audience that had gathered in Chennai. Looking at the 400 or so people present, I told Varshini that we had finally made it! Other countries had come to India to debate, trusting in our institutions and infrastructure to pull things off,” narrates Islam.

In a country where the art of debate is beginning to wane, be it in parliament, on television, or in the echo chambers of social media, ISDS has proved to be an outlier.

This is primarily because it has managed to diagnose the central problem with public discourse in India today, as Varshini explains: “Currently, we seem to be talking past each other and don’t even have a common baseline of facts to agree upon. Through the kind of formal debating we do at ISDS, we can help convince people that they’re not always right, that they need to think as if they were in another person’s shoes. Formal debating also encourages discipline and how to engage with someone respectfully…But, above all, it makes young thinkers realise the value of speaking freely so that they can defend their right to free speech later in life as well as the rights of others.”

Priyam Marik is a post-graduate student of journalism at the University of Sussex, United Kingdom.

All images provided by the author