The Changing Scene of Debate in Nepal

- Vishad Raj Onta

Jan 17, 2018-

Imagine that you are Gotham City`s vigilante, Batman. Donning a mask and a cape, you glide around the City, bringing justice to those who deserve it. Over the years, you have come up against formidable nemeses like the Penguin and the Joker, and you have always come out on top. But now the Gotham City Police Department, with which you have had a love-hate relationship, wants you as its chief.

Would you take up the offer?

This was one of the motions tabled at the recently-held Mahakumbha debate that saw students from 20 schools take on fascinating topics ranging from environment to politics.

The image that comes to mind when the word “debate” is mentioned in Nepal is just one motion—or topic—and three speakers on each side with memorised speeches that are filled with Nepali Ukhan Tukkas. This is the format presented in our grade school Nepali textbook Hamro Nepali Kitab. What is more, the curriculum even asks us to write debates in exams, right up to the SEE.

Well, the debate scene in Nepal has certainly changed. Recently, the three-man-team I was a part of in the Mahakumbha debate tournament reached the finals of the opens category (we lost). In that tournament, we debated on nine different motions, five of which were given to us there and then. A total of 32 teams participated, and only the top eight teams from the qualifying stage broke into the opens. The tournament was organised by the Debate Network Nepal (DNN), the nation’s leading debate body. Besides Mahakumbha, DNN also organises ViduShe (All women), Mahasangram (British Parliament format) and Rastra Bahas (Nepali language) tournaments.

“Debate expands your way of thinking, and makes you familiar with a lot of issues you wouldn’t otherwise know. It gives you a platform to advocate for issues that you are passionate about,” says Pawan Adhikari, vice-chair of DNN, and a passionate debater himself. This rang true in the theme set for this year’s Mahakumbha: Sustainable Development Goals. The topics debated at the event included whether financial aid should be diverted to NGOs rather than the government, and whether governments could seize private land without consent. However, motions such as whether intellectual property should be allowed to be stolen in developing countries, and the aforementioned Batman motion kept the debate from being too serious.

As debaters, we analysed motions, and often based arguments around single words. For instance, my team won the debate on intellectual property by focusing on the word “developing”. We argued that people in developing countries don’t have the means or technology to pay for, say a single song from iTunes, so they should be allowed to pirate songs. 

“For me, debating has always been about listening,” says Ameesha Rayamajhi, 16-year-old student from St Xavier’s College Maitighar, and one-third of the team that won the open finals at Mahakumbha. “It is about listening and analysing opinions that are not mine.” The format, according to Rayamajhi, means that you must listen actively to the opponents’ speeches. You cannot simply regurgitate previously written speeches on the podium. It is essential to think immediately, to identify the opponents’ arguments and counter them. This starkly contrasts with the traditional Nepali debate format of memorising speeches and “Table thataune,” as experienced debater Sanket Poudel, 16, of Rato Bangala School calls it. In these debate formats, your loudness and your vocabulary do not matter as much as the strength of your arguments.

Today, with Model United Nations (MUNs)—another debate format— being organised in many private schools throughout the Kathmandu Valley, many young adults are getting exposed to debate. But, for enthusiastic debaters, tournaments like Mahakumbha are a must-try, even if just for the immense volume of debate. For a lazy debater, like me, this format was still enjoyable, because in it arguments are still much more important than your amount of research. The topics we discussed were a lot closer to Nepal, compared to the global issues dealt with in MUN.

The benefits of debating this way are numerous. Of course, your public speaking, reasoning, and listening skills improve. But the most important thing I gained is the ability to think on the spot. You must immediately come up with arguments and counter-arguments, all the while making sure your arguments are foolproof too. These are not only invaluable debating skills; they also help you successfully negotiate in life. Also, when you make a claim in this type of debate, you cannot simply make a sweeping statement without backing it up. You have to explain it, and convince people that it will work by providing examples and evidence.

There were times when there were very few people debating in Nepal, and awareness of debate formats was low. But now among an increasing group of students, debating has become a culture, even a passion. It also works to identify the best young debaters around. In fact, Mahakumbha was also a screening process to select people for the WSDC championship, happening in Croatia.

The Mahakumbha tournament was certainly a success. However, in hindsight, the debates rarely start on time. So, the last debates of the day were in the evening, when we were all tired, and the debates were not as engaging as they could have been. The debate program should be publicised more too. Some people who would have participated in the program were simply unaware of it. Hence, the tournament had lots of seasoned debaters, which certainly put up a big challenge for new teams like ours.

Debate, no matter what kind, makes you think. And we could definitely do with more of it throughout Nepal. It could be introduced as an integral extracurricular activity in private and public schools in these international formats. Trained debaters could travel throughout Nepal, and hold workshops about such debates. Holding debates in Nepali, while retaining the international formats would encourage more people to take it up as well. If debate is developed seriously in Nepal, we would really benefit from the discussions, ideas, and the solutions that result from it.

Onta is an A-level student at Rato Bangala School

Published: 17-01-2018 08:13

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