In their pursuit of the much-coveted trophy, Sourodip Paul and Sajid Asbat Khandker beat 373 teams from 267 institutions worldwide – including the likes of Harvard, Princeton, Oxford, Cambridge, LSE, Chicago, Cornell, etc – and became the Open Champion in Belgrade World University Debating Championship (WUDC) 2022.
In the Grand Finals, Sajid and Sourodip beat Princeton University, the National University of Singapore, and Ateneo De Manila University, to be crowned the Champions of the World.
Contrary to what lay people may think, this was not much of a surprise to those of us in the debating community. A world cup in debating was years in the making as Sajid and Sourodip and many other predecessors, as well as, contemporaries, broke one glass ceiling after another and laid the foundation for the epoch-making achievement we celebrate today.
Firstly, this was Sajid and Souro's fourth attempt at WUDC. Previously, they had reached the quarterfinals of Thailand WUDC in 2019. Sajid had won the Asian British Parliamentary (ABP) in 2017 as part of the first Bangladeshi team to do so.
Sourodip, on the other hand, won the Australasian Debates in 2020 from Australian National University and even became the best speaker in the tournament. They twice reached the grand finals of ABP and later won the Cambridge IV (InterVarsity) in 2021, one of the most prestigious international debating competitions in the world. The Business Standard spoke to these legends to learn what drove them to competitive debating, their secret to success and their advice for those who would follow in their footsteps.
Where it all began
Sourodip's debating journey began when he was only in the fourth grade at the Oxbridge International School in Chittagong.
He explained, "It's been a while. I remember it was a speech competition in class four on the occasion of International Mother Language Day. I lost my script before going onto the stage. Regardless, I went onto the stage, gave my speech and eventually won the prize. Our Principal, Rehana Iqbal Madam, was really impressed with my ability to improvise and put me on the school debate team. I would give a huge shoutout to Rehana Maam for launching my debating career."
But Sourodip's journey into debating prominence would be postponed as his parents would have to travel a lot because of their jobs, at least until Sourodip got into Notre Dame College.
"I knew Notre Dame College was big in the debating arena and I decided to be a part of it. Interestingly, around this time, Brac University, consisting of Ratib Bhai (Ratib Ali) and Aaquib Bhai (Aaquib Farhan Hossain) won the WUDC of ESL category. That's when I realised that it was possible for Bangladesh to achieve international recognition and I began taking debating seriously."
Sajid, on the other hand, was often referred to as the 'lone wolf' since his school days, carrying a Dhanmondi Tutorial team on his shoulder to the knockout rounds in local tournaments, but often falling short at the final hurdle against more balanced teams. His individual brilliance, however, would stand out as he would make it into the National Debate Camp and then into the Team Bangladesh for the World Schools Debating Championship in 2015.
The stepping stones to greatness
After completing high school, both Sourodip and Sajid pursued their undergrads at the Institute of Business Administration (IBA), University of Dhaka, as a part of its 23rd and 25th intake, respectively. It was in IBA where their dreams of winning the world truly flourished.
"Around the time I got into IBA, they became the first Bangladeshi team to qualify for the open knockout rounds in the WUDC. That's when I decided that I had to at least break once in the open category in my debating career," said Sourodip.
But there would be many heartbreaks too. Sourodip would not break open in his first two ABP tournaments and Sajid and Sourodip together would go on to lose two consecutive ABP open finals. In WUDC, they would break in their debut tournament in 2018 and reach the open quarterfinals. Despite breaking into the knockout rounds in both the 2019 and 2020 editions of the tournament, they would not be able to cross the quarterfinal hurdles.
As the final glory eluded them despite repeated attempts, both Sajid and Sourodip would manage their expectations, thinking there was a glass ceiling that could not be broken. And they had valid reasons to think so.
One of the most unfortunate realities facing a debater is the sheer cost of debating in international tournaments, starting from registration fees, and airfare to accommodation costs.
"I remember, before one of the WUDCs, debaters from IIUM were sent on an exchange programme in Europe. They went to many different places in the region and debated in major tournaments like Oxford IV, and Cambridge IV. In the following WUDC, they did exceptionally well. The teams that knocked us out of Quarter Finals in earlier tournaments had also debated in these tournaments to prepare for the WUDC. Would any university from Bangladesh facilitate that kind of preparation? With due respect, no, they wouldn't. So, we were never really on an equal footing with those teams."
Funnily enough, the Covid-19 pandemic of all things allowed Bangladeshi debaters like Sourodip and Sajid to take part in European majors from the confines of their homes as most of these international tournaments had to adopt an online modality. And the results speak for themselves.
Overcoming the language barrier
Another major difficulty faced by Bangladeshi debaters is the language barrier. As if speaking fluently and eloquently in English for seven minutes straight wasn't enough struggle, you also have to make enough sense to win debates. Moreover, most of the sources of knowledge like books, YouTube videos, documentaries, etc. are also in English. Even if you overcome all of these obstacles, you may still find it difficult to even comprehend what the native speakers were saying.
As Sourodip said, "It takes years and years of understanding. Any native English speaker is more eloquent in speaking. More importantly they also think in English. Consequently, it is often possible for them to cover more grounds in debates."
"We found out the way to beat these teams was through strategy and prioritisation. Even though we could cover less ground and say less, our arguments were more valuable, and relevant to the issue at hand. But developing that skill also took years of hard work," he added.
After many trials and tribulations, the IUB Ascension 2019 – the only international debate tournament held in Bangladesh – would finally set Sourodip and Sajid a class above the rest as they would go on to beat Oxford University in the finals to become the Open Champion.
As Sajid explained, "When I won Ascension 2019, I felt like we could conquer the world given how we had some of the best debaters and judges in our backyard. Then there was the IBA Nations league where I debated with my debate idol, Mubarrat Wassey (another prominent Bangladeshi debater). We beat many world-class debaters and it was also a turning point for me."
For Sourodip, however, it was winning the Cambridge IV 2020 that led him to believe that it was indeed possible for them to win the Worlds.
"All the strongest teams in the world participate in the Australs and the Cambridge IV as part of their preparation for the WUDC. And usually, one of the teams that win these tournaments go on to win the Worlds. So, when we won the Cambridge IV I felt we could win the Worlds too," said Sourodip.
For the next generation
When asked about what their advice would be for the next generation of debaters, Sourodip said, "I would advise the next generation of debaters to be fearless. We were not fearless enough. When we went into our first Worlds, we thought an open break would be a massive achievement. Back then, very few teams from Asia used to break open, fewer made it to the Octofinals, even fewer made the Quarters, rarely the Semis, and once in a generation, a team would reach the Open finals."
"Now that we have won the WUDC as the first Asian team, that myth is no longer true. And it's not just for Bangladeshi debaters. It is the same for Malaysian, Filipino, Indonesian and Singaporean debaters. There is no limit to what you can achieve anymore. So, be fearless," he said, adding, "stick to your passion. A lot of people think that our path was paved with success. But I could not even reach the knockout rounds in my first two international tournaments at the university level. I wanted to give it up then. But I didn't and somehow everything fell into place. So, grit is important. You have to keep going even at the worst of times."
Sourodip's passion was echoed by Sajid as well.
"Be fearless and be passionate. Stick to the sport for friends and because you enjoy the activity. You have nothing to fear. We have already conquered the world," Sajid said.