Self-reliance as a potent weapon


By asserting authority at borders and in digital space, India has sent clear signals to the Red Dragon that it will not take the latter’s belligerence lying down. The government has played a master-stroke by banning Chinese apps and denting their pride and hurting them where it hurts, contends Renuka Goel.

When the Indian government announced on 29 June 2020 that it was banning 59 apps developed by Chinese firms, the country was in shock. Not only was this an unprecedented move by India, it was also a first in the series of steps to confront Chinese aggression and tame the Red Dragon. It was the first step towards India turning Atmanirbhar, particularly so, in digital space.

The move not only garnered global attention, it triggered similar actions by several nations including the United States of America. India had strengthened its position as a global power as more nations were now looking up to India for leadership and direction in geo-political and strategic affairs.

In 2020, relations between India and China took a hit following the military skirmishes between the two nations. The soldiers of both the countries had engaged in multiple aggressive face-offs and melee at multiple locations across the border in Ladakh, Sikkim and along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). What followed was an aggressive stance by the Indian government at the border and beyond. It was the beginning of a new self-reliant India.

The big ban

Among the apps that the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology ordered to ban was Tik Tok – Byte Dance’s popular video-making social media networking app with India as its biggest overseas market. The list of banned apps also included Community and Video Call apps from Xiaomi –one of the top smartphone vendors in India; two of Alibaba Group’s apps UC Browser and UC News (Alibaba is a Chinese multinational technology company specialising in e-commerce, retail, Internet, and technology); Shareit; ES File Explorer; CM Browser and Club Factory that claims to be India’s third-largest e-commerce firm.

According to the Ministry statement, the apps were engaging in activities compromising the “national security and defence of India, which ultimately impinges upon the sovereignty and integrity of India.” This was the first time that India had banned so many foreign apps. Being the world’s second largest internet market and a country where nearly half of the billion plus population is online, India made an unprecedented and a tough move. And, this was also a significant step in the standoff between the world’s two giant nations.

Even though the Indian government implemented the ban citing risk to national security, data security and privacy, it was clear to everyone that the action was essentially a retaliatory measure against Chinese military incursions in Ladakh. The fact that India’s digital economy is one of the largest markets in the world, the ban was set to dent the financial standing of Chinese companies by impacting their valuations. But, it did more than that and became a point of contention and discussion in the simmering Indo-China border dispute.

India’s bold step

The Ministry had invoked its power under section 69A of the IT Act read with the relevant provisions of the Information Technology (Procedure and Safeguards for Blocking of Access of Information by Public) Rules 2009 for the order. The Ministry had received many complaints and reports that were directing towards the misuse of a few mobile apps that were available on Android and iOS platforms. The reports indicated theft of users’ data in an unauthorised manner and transmission to servers located outside India. The apps were threatening the country’s sovereignty and integrity, defence, security of state and public order.

“The compilation of these data, its mining and profiling by elements hostile to national security and defence of India, which ultimately impinges upon the sovereignty and integrity of India, is a matter of very deep and immediate concern which requires emergency measures,” read the statement. Ministry of Home Affairs’ Indian Cyber Crime Coordination Centre had also sent an “exhaustive recommendation for blocking these malicious apps.” The Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-IN) had also received several citizen representationsregarding security of data and breach of privacy issues, further impacting the public order. Not only this, even public representatives within and beyond the Parliament and across party lines were raising concerns and demanding strict action against the apps harming the nation and threatening the privacy of billions of Indians.

It was on the basis of concerns and reports from several sectors and upon receiving credible inputs regarding the misuse of these apps that the government decided to safeguard interests of Indian mobile and internet users and that of the Indian cyberspace and banned the use of these apps on “mobile and non-mobile Internet enabled devices.”

The Indo-China dispute

The Indian government’s retaliatory move of banning Chinese apps followed unwarranted aggression from the Chinese at the borders between the two nations. On the night of 5 May 2020, the People’s Liberation Army and Indian Army soldiers clashed at Finger 5 in the northern flank of the Pangong Lake in Ladakh.

A few days later, the violent confrontation between the two armies repeated near Naku La in Sikkim. Soon after, on 15 June 2020, China moved about 6,000 PLA soldiers to strategic locations in the Indian claimed areas of the Galwan Valley in Ladakh.

The Indian army moved in more troops and Indo-Tibetan Border Police personnel to the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in eastern Ladakh to maintain the positions. “India is committed to the objective of maintenance of peace and tranquillity in the border areas with China and our armed forces scrupulously follow the consensus reached by our leaders and the guidance provided. At the same time, we remain firm in our resolve to ensuring India’s sovereignty and national security,” said India foreign ministry spokesperson Anurag Srivastava.

Indian aggression continues

India’s foreign and trade policies have turned a new leaf. Not only is India more aggressive in safeguarding interests of its citizens, it has been proactive in tackling China through myriad channels.

Amid the strenuous relationship and the standoff at India-China border, the Indian government has made it hard for the Chinese investors to invest in India. For example, funds like Shunwei Capital from the founders of Xiaomi and Bace Capital backed by the Ant Group are now shifting focus from India to Indonesia.

In September 2020, India banned 118 more apps created by Chinese companies and in November 2020 the government banned 43 more Chinese apps on the grounds of national security. The banned apps included big names such as PUBG, Weibo, etc. taking the total to 220 Chinese apps banned by the Indian government.

PUBG Corporation, the South Korean game developer, is reportedly planning to return to the Indian market by cutting ties with the Chinese company Tencent that was used to publish the PUBG mobile game in India.

India leads the way

The new India is no longer relying on passive diplomacy in dealing with other nations and particularly historically belligerent neighbours such as China. The series of bans was a clear message to China that India will no longer sit and watch but will change the norms of engagement. The bans that followed the border skirmishes at the border also decelerated China’s ambitions to become the digital superpower.

The face-off sparked anti-China sentiments across the country and the nation called for a boycott of Chinese goods and products and pushed the “vocal for local” movement. Even before the clashes, India had already introduced restrictive measures to check Chinese foreign direct investments into India.And, at a local level, within borders, the anti-China sentiment was emboldened at grassroots by the Indian PM’s call of ‘vocal for local’.

Mamta Gupta

Mamta Gupta is a Research Associate with Maverick – A DraftCraft International initiative to further reach, accountability and the law in Pre-Primary, Primary, Intermediary and Secondary Education.