Noah Seelam / AFP via Getty Images
When India imposed coronavirus restrictions in late March, Arman Rathod’s work dried up.
The 29-year-old had lived and washed cars and painted statues of Hindu deities in his hometown of Valsad in western India. Broken and bored during the lockdown, Rathod and his friends started recording movies of themselves in April on the social media app TikTok.
Dressed in a bag of buttons, Rathod would gyrate on a dusty ground under a tree in his village, while a friend filed him. His 15-second dance video, tuned to Indian pop songs, went viral. Within weeks, he gathered seven million followers.
He made money from it – enough to support his family during the pandemic – by sponsoring ads. Fans sent him gifts. TikTok even sent him an iPhone.
“My dreams came true!” he tells NPR by phone from his village. “I got calls to choreograph Bollywood movie songs and appear on TV dance shows.”
But all of a sudden it ended on June 29, when the Indian government banned TikTok and 58 other Chinese-owned apps, calling them a threat to India’s security and sovereignty. The order came amid rising tensions between India and China after their soldiers clashed on the two countries’ unmarked border high in the Himalayas earlier this month. India said 20 of its troops were killed; China has not revealed any injuries.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry expressed “strong concern” about the ban.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo applauded India’s move and suggested that the United States follow suit. The Trump administration has already taken action against other Chinese technology companies, such as Huawei, and said it would incorrectly share users’ information with China’s Communist Party.
The head of TikTok’s India branch said the company complies with India’s privacy and security rules and “has not shared any information about our users in India with any foreign government, including the Chinese government.”
The companies behind the banned apps now have until July 22 to answer 79 questions from the Indian Ministry of Information Technology, including whether the censored content or worked on behalf of a foreign government, according to national news reports.
In India, TikTok is not just a teenage maniac. It is a livelihood for some people. It has given birth to new celebrities on social media, many of them working class, like Rathod, in villages far from India’s cosmopolitan megacities. They have used the app to find fame, empowerment and even a way out of poverty. But now India’s TikTok stars have been damaged by security in a geopolitical inflation between the world’s two most populous countries.
A small town favorite
TikTok, owned by Beijing-based company ByteDance, hosts homemade videos from 15 seconds to one minute. In India, these are mostly made up of people who sync lips to pop songs, dance and play Indian movie scenes. You can choose who to follow, but an algorithm also peppers your feed with videos from strangers. These were the people that Rathod noticed.
TikTok is estimated to have been downloaded more than 2 billion times. Before the ban is believed, up to a third of its regular users – about 200 million people – are in India, analysts say. It was the app’s largest market, in terms of traffic, outside China.
Unlike Facebook-owned Instagram, which in India only supports Hindi and English, TikTok supports several Indian languages. TikTok’s loyalists are often India’s other levels cities or villages. Many were first-time users of social media, unable to read or write English, drawn to TikTok in part because it is primarily video and not text-heavy like Twitter or Facebook, according to NPR interviews with Indian TikTok users and analysts.
Here’s a selection of stars: a goatherd lip sync to a romantic Bollywood song from the 1990s; a partially blind man dancing in a field with his wife; a queer makeup artist who breaks gender stereotypes.
“Before TikTok, Indians in small towns striving to show off their talent had to move to the big city to get attention,” said Sumit Jain, an amateur dancer who owns a clothing store in a city 200 miles from the Bollywood capital, Mumbai. “TikTok lets us do it from home.”
Jain, a skinny 28-year-old with a mop of curly hair, has 3.8 million followers on the app – down from more than 4 million before the ban.
After hearing the news of the ban, some Indian TikTokers rallied to publish final farewell videos for their fans, before their apps went dark.
TikTok disappeared from Apple and Google Play stores in India. Even users who have already downloaded the app can no longer access any content on it. If you visit their website in India it says: “The app is currently not available under the directive of Govt. Of India.” But Indian videos are still visible outside the country.
Take advantage of national uprisings
Anger has swelled over India during last month’s killing of Indian troops, the deadliest collision with the Chinese in decades. Some Indians have made a public appearance of destroying their Chinese televisions. A government minister even demanded that Chinese food be banned.
Nationalist TV anchors promise to shut down the app. “We Indian people, who are behind the government, have the ability to beat China where it hurts!” journalist Arnab Goswami exclaimed on his TV news broadcast in prime time.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi – who trumpets a new slogan, “self-reliant India” – has long wanted Indians to develop apps rather than use Chinese.
“The Indian government is trying to exploit the national sentiment [of anger at China] sweeps India right now. The Modi government has been trying to reduce its confidence in Chinese products since coming to power [in 2014], “says Akhil Bery, a South Asian analyst at Eurasia Group’s think tank.” India sees its trade deficit with China as a national security problem. With TikTok, there have long been concerns about data transfers and the app’s integrity. So these talks had been circulating, and the current conflict with China probably accelerated it. “
This is not the first time TikTok has encountered problems in India. The country banned the app shortly in April 2019 after a court ruled that it illegally “promoted” child pornography by not blocking inappropriate content. TikTok later deleted more than 6 million videos and the ban ended. There have also been other security issues: Indians have died in accidents while doing TikTok content.
If Beijing returns, the ban could ultimately cost India dearly. More than half of India’s so-called unicorns – start-ups estimated at more than $ 1 billion – have Chinese investments and the Chinese government can simply order the country’s companies to withdraw that money, Bery tells NPR.
“However, this seems to be a calculation that the Indian government has made and is willing to accept,” he said.
Chinese media still say the ban could cost ByteDance as much as $ 6 billion. To be locked out its fastest growing international market could hurt TikTok’s global ambitions, especially when considering listing for a first public offering, says Bery.
A race to replace TikTok
At the same time, technology companies are struggling to hire TikTok’s millions of users in India. A handful of national competitors reportedly received a heavy download within 48 hours of the ban. This month, Instagram Reels debuted for the Indian market, where users can publish 15-second videos with music.
“TikTok was the only platform of its kind. If I did not sign in for a few days, I used to get lots of messages asking if I was OK. In the streets, people would recognize me,” says 26-year-old Anita Meena, a housewife in the north. India who used to post TikTok videos of himself performing local folk dances. “I was just about to start making money on TikTok, but then it was banned.”
She says she will focus on YouTube now. But she is not convinced that she will have the same consequence there.
All the TikTok stars interviewed by NPR for this story say they understand why the Indian government banned the app and support this measure – even if they regret the loss.
“TikTok changed my life,” says Rathod. “I felt like I was finally doing what I was born to do.”