On 29 June 2020, following rising tensions between India and China, the Indian government announced a ban on 59 Chinese apps. India justified its ban by stating those 59 apps were “prejudicial to [the] sovereignty … of India, defence, security of state and public order.” The Indian government also shared that it had received complaints these apps had transferred unauthorised Indian user data to servers abroad. This clash highlights the effects of a neoliberal securitisation discourse that restricts the freedoms of Indian citizens.
In Gender, Alterity, and Human Rights: Freedom in a Fish Bowl, Ratna Kapur describes how governments expand surveillance and regulations in the name of security. She shows how security discourse counterproductively restricts the freedoms and rights of those the State promises to protect. A security narrative allows the State to justify increasing its regulatory capacity into the private lives of citizens.
Here, hostilities between India and China have escalated due to a border clash two weeks earlier in the Indian state of Kashmir, which resulted in the deaths of armed personnel on both sides. Following that border clash, India cited its national security and data integrity interests when it imposed a ban on Chinese apps like TikTok. TikTok replied that it had complied with Indian data privacy laws by withholding Indian users’ information from foreign governments. Nonetheless, legitimisation of increased restrictions on freedoms through a securitisation discourse is jarring: just three months earlier, the Indian government denied that it was contemplating a ban on TikTok due to counter-intelligence threats.
The Indian TikTok market is different from that in the West. While the latter’s users include influencers, celebrities, and the well-to-do, in India the app has become a platform of the masses with over 120 million active users across ages, classes, identities, and backgrounds, with many being first-time internet users from rural areas. The ban deprives a large section of the population of a creative outlet and safe space. The hardest-hit include members of marginalised communities, small artists impacted by the pandemic, and those without access to influence or resources, who all used the app as a tool of social and class mobility.
A neoliberal agenda fuels the securitisation discourse. This is most apparent in the use of the language of economic rights to justify State measures. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has promoted an Atmanirbhar or self-reliance movement through Indian alternatives to foreign manufactured goods and services. The movement has swelled following the Indo-China clash, with the government employing both a securitisation discourse and economic rights language through social campaigns that promote the boycott of Chinese goods; stressing the need to reduce foreign reliance; and promises of job creation and economy stimulation. Irrespective of whether India can carry out a ban on Chinese goods, what matters is how market demand for economic stability both propel and rely on securitisation discourse. Thus, Indian alternatives to the banned Chinese apps have all seen greater development and promotion.
The Indian self-reliance movement reinforces existing social, economic, and political hegemonies. For example, India’s largest mobile network operator Reliance Jio has depended on State patronage to break into the videoconferencing sector and create an alternative to Zoom. The Indian government has left the smaller self-owned businesses, many of which are already struggling due to the pandemic-induced economic downturn, to fend for themselves. They now face supply chain risks in the face of mounting pressure to boycott China. Establishment of alternative supply chains may take far longer for them due to reduced business and lockdown concerns.
Ultimately, the securitisation discourse reinforces existing and State supremacies, at the cost of individual freedoms.
Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Social Policy Blog, nor of the London School of Economics.