"The time for justice, the time for freedom and the time for equality is always right now"- The Great Debaters (2007)

The closing lines of Denzel Washington’s movie, ‘The Great Debaters’ read “The definition of moral: Dyer’s lesson or Gandhi’s victory? You chose”. One could have easily asked the same question by using words like violence and non-violence. Debates since history in India and many other countries have always been about expressing, through words which can trigger a solution; formulate an action.

Debates have always let a person not just stand and speak, but also stand by what they say. The Indian Parliament has seen the greatest of the debates taking place on its floor. Even conventional debates in Indian colleges and Universities started being completely Parliamentary in form, with an appointed speaker moderating the discussion.

“William Penn once said that in all debates, let the truth be thy aim, not victory, or an unjust interest. When India was going through the lockdown phase, a national TV journalist said in a primetime debate, “These are not migrant workers, but funded actors.” With the advent of daily prime time debates like soap opera coming one after another, one might feel that these signs are mostly positive for democracy in the country.

But these are the ones becoming toxic enough to let a democracy function. “Thus, debates in prime time have largely moved on from their goal of truth to that of spreading propaganda whenever the Party providing them the patronage asks them to”, says Rashmi Kalita, a debater from Assam and a former student of History at JB College Jorhat.

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Arnab Goswami has been criticized by many for his style of journalism and hosting news debates

Pratima is a student of Class 8 at Delhi Public School, Jorhat. She has just started debating and finds interest in watching prime time debates on Indian TV channels. When EastMojo asked her aspirations regarding debate, she says, “I shall do many more debates. I will never let anyone speak anything that I do not want to listen to.” A 13-year-old girl dreaming about the debates in a way she has seen those conducted in news shows how the standard of contemporary news debates is affecting the mindset of the children towards a democratic exercise.

India has produced parliamentarians who have considered the Parliament as the place of God and media persons who have worked hard to establish it as the fourth pillar of democracy. While talking to Rupjyoti Kalita, who was a veteran debater of his times and is currently working as a journalist in an Assamese daily, he said, “Apart from 2-3 news anchors, there is a lack of depth. One needs to be careful of language when it comes to news debates because we have encountered incidents where usage of language has been very derogatory. A moderator needs to be neutral. But when they take a side, stubborn enough to shout at someone’s opinion by asking if they have any shame at all and so on. It affects the quality of the debate, as well as violates the very principle of journalism.”

One just not stand and speak,but also stand by what they speak.

However, he added regarding debates in Parliament that it is undergoing a gradual shift and with a higher number of young parliamentarians entering into it, the state of debates has improved.

EastMojo spoke to Bishaldeep Kakati, a debater from the state and the Assistant General Secretary of Northeast Debaters Association (NEDA) in this regard. He says, “When we converse about democracy, it’s often dependent on people’s participation be it in terms of electoral politics or voicing out opinions. That is the reason for the proper functioning of a democratic nation the people need to appreciate those in power when they take apt steps and also have healthy criticism when the same fail to live up to the expectations of the people. In this context, one cannot discard the importance of talk shows or TV debates.”

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“When we talk of debates, we often have people from both the proposition and opposition, which means one can not only know the positives about a decision taken but also, its negatives as well. And when we talk about discussing the negatives, it simply means showcasing the loopholes in a particular decision or an action to make changes in the subsequent period. We can say, “debate and democracy” are two sides of the same coin,” Kakati says.

There are three kinds of debates,largely prevalent : one in the Parliament, primetime debate hosted on news channels and a debating competition in any institute.

They are inter-related and, in many sense, inter-dependent. Chandopal Saikia, the former Debate and Symposium Secretary of Dibrugarh University and a veteran debater spoke to EastMojo in this regard. He says, “People tend to believe whatever shown in news programmes as true. Even in news debates with a diverse opinion, we see that one with a louder tone is trying to shut everyone up. Such people often end up with an upper hand. And the problem is many of these young people who are growing up watching these things end up idealising them. Hence, even in conventional debates, you have seen many people shouting to prove a point.”

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Debates help to formulate an opinion regarding an issue. And after the advent of social media, when people are using Facebook and Twitter, there is a polarisation affecting the people. Having faith in an opinion is good, but when the same makes you intolerant enough to listen to anyone else, we lose the debating essence. In this regard, we spoke with Geetanjali Mali, a student at Tezpur University and a young debater. She says, “The problem is people start believing that debate is all about violence or rather, shouting. And the same gets carried on. Even in the Parliament, we have rarely seen people speaking to the opposition or the treasury through the speaker. This breaks the very essence of debating. And here, in Parliamentary Debating Competitions, we have seen this rule strictly followed. So we can conclude that the debates in Parliament are hardly parliamentary.”

“Debating is art. We have seen debaters becoming good Parliamentarians and budding journalists. In this epoch, it will be important to see how the debating quality at the college/University stays intact. Debates and dissenters are vital components of democracy. However, some journalists shouting or imposing their opinions and being biased towards some stakeholders of crony capitalism is not a good sign for debating as a whole”, says Prahlad Tanti, a debater from the state.

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Whenever democracy has been attacked, India and Indians have stood tall to uphold the democratic rights of the people. However, being pillars of democracy, it will be noteworthy to see if the contemporary situations, as perceived by the debaters and debating associations, regarding news debates, ever gets improved or not. As another line from the movie, ‘The Great Debaters’ entail, “The majority does not decide what is right or wrong; your conscience does.”

(The author is a second year student of Mass Communication and Journalism from Tezpur University whose prefers writing stories on developmental journalism and is also a prolific debater)

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