Rishma Kollapu remembers the day she and her classmates were invited to meet Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Y. S. Jagan Mohan Reddy. It was a proud moment for the teenager who had just completed Class X at a government school. But since that televised meeting on 19 May, Rishma’s life has become a nightmare. And all because she and her friends spoke fluent English—not in an Indian accent, but with a distinct American twang.
She and her friends—all under 15 years—have been viciously trolled on social media,
to the point that they needed counselling. Even political leaders have taken pot shots
They should have been feted and celebrated by students, the education system and
aspirant youth. But in Andhra Pradesh, they are now the target of humiliating ridicule.
The beginning of intense mockery
When videos of their interaction with Jagan went viral, questions were raised on social
media about how government school students could have such a ‘Westernised accent.’
Memes and videos mocking the students popped up online, while closer home, they
faced intimidation and relentless ridicule.
The collective gaslighting of the students has pushed them to doubt their impressive
achievement. “Initially, I was very happy and proud and so were my parents. But,
after looking at all the memes, I was upset for days. I was only thinking: Did I do
something wrong? Is having an accent such a bad thing? Why are people mocking us
so much?” another student, Anusha Peyyala, told ThePrint.
Soon, rumours spread that the students who spoke in such a ‘posh accent’ could not
clear their Class X board exams. A few students even showed their report cards to the
media to refute these claims.
The Opposition Telugu Desam Party (TDP) leader Anam Venkata Ramana Reddy
imitated the students speaking in English at a press conference while raising the Class
X board exam issue again. And the YouTube videos added fuel to the fire.
Everyone the students met brought up the trolling and memes. “They showed us videos mocking us. There were hundreds of such videos,” said Anusha, who is now in Class XI or Intermediate College Level as it’s called in Andhra Pradesh.
The relentless online bullying and public humiliation took a toll on their mental health. “Students had to be counselled and were asked to stay away from social media,” said Prasad Ganta Veera, the English teacher at Bendapudi Zilla Parishad School, in Andhra’s East Godavari district where the children studied.
One young girl bore the brunt of the trolling after people started making fun of the way she had anglicised her Indian name. It became the crux of most memes, and till today there are hundreds of videos and Instagram reels mocking her. In one video, an Indian residing abroad teamed up with a local from that country and lip synced the Chief Minister asking her name and her reply. The girl—who was also in Class X at the time of the interview—and her family, were reluctant to speak to ThePrint.
Another video clip from recent pan-India blockbuster film RRR, which has Bollywood female icon Alia Bhatt introducing her character, was lip synched to match the Class X student’s way of telling her name to the Chief Minister.
Teachers encouraged ‘native’ accent
Their teacher Prasad cannot make sense of the hate. It was his idea to teach the students how to come across as “native speakers of English” with an American accent.
He made WhatsApp groups and instructed students to watch video clips of international news organisations, plays, and entertainment shows. The idea was to get them to understand how the same word is pronounced differently in the West. “We say ‘water’ in a particular way, but people in the foreign countries have a different way of saying it. We used to watch those videos and practise speaking the language for an hour daily. For instance, if we were reading a lesson from our textbook, we tried to pronounce the words the same way an American would,” Rishma said.
Videos of the students learning English were posted online in May, and started to gain
traction among viewers. In less than a week, the school management got a call from
the School Education Department requesting an interaction with the students. “A
group of IAS officers met the students, spoke to them and then arranged for a meeting
with the Chief Minister,” said Prasad.
Response to Jagan’s English push
The timing was perfect as the Jagan Mohan-led government has been pushing for
English to be the medium of instruction. Last year, the government decided to make
English the medium of instruction across all public schools in a phased manner.
For Prasad, it was the perfect opportunity for his students to try out their language skills. Though he studied in a Telugu-medium school, he was always fascinated by
English and the way it was spoken in other countries. “I like the American accent. I
feel if they appear as ‘native English speakers’ they will be accepted better in the
society,” he said.
But the exact opposite happened. “It blew up so bad that we were shocked.” Neither
the teacher nor the students were ready for the onslaught. “I wonder how people can think of trolling children. I asked them to continue speaking this way,” said Prasad, who holds a Master’s degree in Literature and Psychology.
Advisor to Andhra Pradesh government in School Education, Akunuri Murali, who is also a retired IAS officer, called the trolling “barbaric”. He pointed out that most of the students who met Jagan were girls—three out of five, to be precise. “Imagine, for the first time a girl student comes out of the village, talks to the Chief Minister and then gets so brutally trolled. What impact will it have on lakhs of other girl students in schools,” he said.
‘Won’t abandon accent’
After the initial onslaught, the students decided to continue speaking English with an
American accent. “Our sir [Prasad] conducted Zoom meetings and spoke to each of
us. He told us not to get affected by all this. Our parents also encouraged us,” Anusha
Last month, the students even went to another government-run school in Nidamanuru
in Krishna district to encourage other students to learn English.
The government also launched a pilot programme with the Bendapudi teacher, Prasad, and his students to teach English to fellow batchmates and motivate them. These initiatives have helped rebuild their confidence. “Listening to our students, the other school students also got motivated. The parents of those children were so happy they wanted their children to speak in a similar manner. The government is now working on an SOP [Standard Operating Procedure] to expand it to more schools, I have been assisting them too,” Prasad said.
Murali, however, clarified that the project is aimed at improving their fluency in English. There is no focus on accent.
But the students aren’t giving up their accent. “A group of politicians made us famous
and another group trolled us. But we will not be bothered by all this anymore,”
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)