When India imposed coronavirus restrictions in late March, Arman Rathod's work dried up.
The 29-year-old had made a living washing cars and painting statues of Hindu gods in his hometown of Valsad, in western India. Broke and bored under lockdown, Rathod and his friends started recording videos of themselves in April on the social media app TikTok.
Dressed in a baggy button-down, Rathod would gyrate on a dusty patch of ground under a tree in his village, while a friend filmed him. His 15-second dance videos, set to Indian pop songs, went viral. Within weeks, he amassed 7 million followers.
He made money off it — enough to support his family during the pandemic — through ad sponsorships. Fans sent him gifts. TikTok even sent him an iPhone.
"My dreams were coming 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 that ended abruptly on June 29, when India's government banned TikTok and 58 other Chinese-owned apps, calling them a threat to India's security and sovereignty. The order came amid heightened tensions between India and China after their soldiers had brawled on the two countries' unmarked border high in the Himalayas earlier in the month. India said 20 of its troops were killed; China hasn't divulged any casualties.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry expressed "strong concern" about the ban.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo applauded India's move and suggested the U.S. may follow suit. The Trump administration has already taken action against other Chinese technology companies, such as Huawei, saying they would improperly share users' information with China's Communist Party.
The head of TikTok's India branch said the company complies with India's data privacy and security rules and "has not shared any information of 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 Information Technology Ministry, including whether they censored content or worked on behalf of a foreign government, according to national news reports.
In India, TikTok isn't just a teen craze. It's a livelihood for some people. It has given birth to new social media celebrities, many of them working-class folks, like Rathod, in villages far from India's cosmopolitan megacities. They've used the app to find fame, empowerment and even a path out of poverty. But now, India's TikTok stars have become collateral damage in a geopolitical flare-up between the world's two most populous countries.
A small-town favorite
Owned by the Beijing-based company ByteDance, TikTok hosts homemade videos ranging from 15 seconds to a minute. In India, these mostly consist of people lip-syncing to pop songs, dancing and enacting Indian movie scenes. You can choose whom to follow, but an algorithm also peppers your feed with videos from strangers. That's how people like Rathod got noticed.
TikTok is estimated to have been downloaded more than 2 billion times. Before the ban, up to a third of its regular users — some 200 million people — were believed to be in India, analysts say. It was the app's biggest market, in terms of traffic, outside China.
Unlike Facebook-owned Instagram, which in India supports only Hindi and English, TikTok supports several Indian languages. TikTok's loyalists are often India's second-tier towns or villages. Many were first-time social media users, unable to read or write English, drawn to TikTok in part because it's primarily video and not text-heavy like Twitter or Facebook, according to NPR interviews with Indian TikTok users and analysts.
Here's a sampling of stars: a goatherd lip-syncing to a romantic Bollywood song from the 1990s; a partially blind man dancing in a field with his wife; a queer makeup artist breaking gender stereotypes.
My all time favourite TikTok pic.twitter.com/dciwfvVB6q— indu harikumar (@induviduality) June 30, 2020
"Before TikTok, small-town Indians who aspired to showcase their talent had to move to the big city to get noticed," says Sumit Jain, an amateur dancer who owns a clothing shop in a town 200 miles from Bollywood's capital, Mumbai. "TikTok lets us do that 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.
Upon hearing news of the ban, some Indian TikTokers scrambled to post final goodbye videos for their fans, before their apps went dark.
TikTok disappeared from Apple and Google Play stores in India. Even users who had already downloaded the app can no longer access any content on it. If you visit its website in India it says, "The App is currently unavailable as per the directive by Govt. of India." But Indian videos are still visible from outside the country.
Tapping into national outrage
Anger has swelled across India over last month's killing of Indian troops, the deadliest clash with the Chinese in decades. Some Indians have made a public display of destroying their Chinese-made TVs. One government minister even called for Chinese food to be banned.
Nationalist TV anchors are lauding the app shutdown. "We the people of India, standing behind the government, have the ability to hit China where it hurts!" journalist Arnab Goswami proclaimed on his prime-time TV news show.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi — who's trumpeting a new slogan, "self-reliant India" — has long wanted Indians to develop apps rather than use Chinese ones.
"The Indian government is trying to tap into the national sentiment [of anger at China] sweeping India right now. The Modi government has tried to reduce its reliance on Chinese products since coming to power [in 2014]," says Akhil Bery, a South Asia analyst at the Eurasia Group think tank. "India views its trade deficit with China as a national security concern. With TikTok, there have long been concerns about data transfers and the privacy of the app. So these conversations had been circulating, and the current clash with China likely accelerated that."
This isn't the first time TikTok has run into trouble in India. The country banned the app briefly in April 2019 after a court ruled that it illegally "promoted" child pornography by failing to block inappropriate content. TikTok later removed more than 6 million videos and the ban was lifted. There have been other safety concerns too: Indians have died in accidents while making TikTok content.
If Beijing retaliates, the ban could end up costing India dearly. More than half of India's so-called unicorns — startups valued at more than $1 billion — have Chinese investment and China's government could simply order the country's companies to pull that money, Bery tells NPR.
"However, this seems to be a calculation that the government of India has made and is willing to accept," he says.
Still, Chinese media say the ban could cost ByteDance as much as $6 billion. Being locked out of its fastest-growing international market could hurt TikTok's global ambitions, especially as it considers listing for an initial public offering, Bery says.
A race to replace TikTok
Meanwhile, tech companies are vying to nab TikTok's millions of users in India. A handful of national competitors reportedly got a surge of downloads within 48 hours of the ban. This month, Instagram debuted Reels for the Indian market, where users can post 15-second videos with music.
"TikTok was the only platform of its kind. If I didn't post for a few days, I used to get scores of messages asking if I was OK. On the streets, people would recognize me," says 26-year-old Anita Meena, a housewife in northern India who used to post TikTok videos of herself performing local folk dances. "I was just getting to the point where I could have started making money from TikTok, but then it got banned."
She says she'll focus on YouTube now. But she's not convinced she'll have the same following there.
All of the TikTok stars NPR interviewed for this story say they understand why the Indian government banned the app and support that action — even as they bemoan the loss.
"TikTok changed my life," Rathod says. "I felt like I was finally doing what I was born to do."