Faisal Shaikh, 22, is so famous he can’t leave his home in suburban Mumbai without being mobbed. It’s hard not to be identified on the streets if 22 million people know what you look like. Until two weeks ago, Shaikh, or Mr Faisu, was one of TikTok’s biggest stars in India, but today neither he nor his millions of fans can access his page. On July 8, TikTok suspended the accounts of three of its users based on an FIR filed by a member of the Shiv Sena’s IT Cell. All three of them are young Muslim men with millions of followers each on the social network meant for sharing short, quirky videos.
Hasnain Khan, Shadan Farooqui and Faisal Shaikh are part of a five-member college group from Mumbai who are known on TikTok as Team 07. The other two members of the team are Adnan Shaikh and Faiz Baloch. They first bonded over their love of motorcycle stunts. Together, the five users have a following of over 40 million people.
In May, TikTok was revealed to have overtaken Facebook in global downloads by market intelligence firm Sensor Tower. This growth was “largely driven by India”, according to the US-based firm. The news came days after the Madras High Court lifted its month-long ban on TikTok following charges that the app makes its young users vulnerable to abuse.
The members of Team 07 post dozens of 15-second videos every day of themselves singing, dancing, acting, lip-syncing, and generally being funny. Most of their “content” is pure entertainment; some relate to real-life events such as Eid or the Indian Premier League or the release of a Salman Khan film, but their videos don’t usually reflect their take on current affairs: no elections, no Pulwama, no India-Pakistan relations, no Narendra Modi, no Rahul Gandhi. Like most of TikTok’s predominantly too-young-to-care users, they followed its code of escape from contemporary India’s harsh realities — until now.
On July 6, Hasnain Khan posted a video on his account in which he spoke about the lynching of Tabrez Ansari while the other members of Team 07 stood in the background: “You killed innocent Tabrez Ansari, but tomorrow if his children take revenge, do not say that all Muslims are terrorists.” Faisal Shaikh and Shadan Farooqui also posted similar videos on their accounts on the same day.
On June 18, Ansari, 24, was brutally beaten by a mob in Jharkhand’s Seraikela-Kharsawan district on accusations of theft. While tied to a pole and thrashed for hours, he was allegedly forced to chant “Jai Shri Ram” and “Jai Hanuman”. He died of the injuries four days later.
Within minutes of being posted, Team 07’s videos were circulating widely, amassing views and comments. Then they came to the attention of the Shiv Sena’s Ramesh Solanki, who describes himself on Twitter as a “very proud Hindu nationalist”. Solanki alerted the cyber cell of the Mumbai Police via Twitter and followed up with an FIR at a city police station.
“It’s my constitutional right to file a complaint. These guys are considered heroes. When someone so famous makes a statement like this, it’s not good for the country, especially with the ongoing situation of communal strife,” said Solanki. He suspects deeper forces are at work behind this. “Someone is making them do this. This is part of a conspiracy to destabilise the communal harmony of India,” he said.
The Mumbai Police have registered a case against the five under sections 153A (promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc.) and 34 (acts done by several persons in furtherance of common intention) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). By the next day, the videos vanished from TikTok along with the accounts of the three members of Team 07 who posted them. On 8 July, Faisal Shaikh posted an apology on his Instagram page where he has over 6 million followers. “We would like to apologise sincerely if anyone has felt hurt by our video. Our intention was not to hurt or insult anyone. The video has been removed. Jai Hind.”
In its official statement released on July 9, TikTok said it has “a zero-tolerance policy towards content that has any negative impact on its users or the country it operates in. In line with this, we have till date removed millions of videos; most recently, we suspended three user accounts for posting videos that did not comply with our community guidelines.”
The three members of Team 07 weren’t the only TikTok users to post their views on Ansari’s lynching. Shaikh and his teammates, in fact, only repeated the lines that were already circulating on the platform. A wide range of reactions appeared on TikTok — most of them posted by young Muslim men. Many of them have massive following on TikTok. Not all of them sounded angry. Some of them spoke out the unfairness of “40 people attacking one man”, some demanded justice, and some asked their followers to pray for Ansari’s soul.
But the damage was done. On Twitter, the calls for banning TikTok because it “promotes jihad” have been getting louder. TikTok has dominated news television over the past week, with anchors and panelists debating if the app is threatening India’s integrity. On July 14, Ashwani Mahajan, the co-convenor of Swadeshi Jagran Manch, which is affiliated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, wrote a letter to the Prime Minister demanding that the ministry of home affairs ban the Chinese-owned TikTok and Helo apps. “In recent weeks, TikTok has become a hub for anti-national content that is being shared extensively on the application and which can rupture the fabric of our society,” Mahajan stated.
On Wednesday the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) sent a notice to TikTok and Helo, asking their parent company, ByteDance, to respond to the concerns. This marked a sharp switch from last week when the National Skill Development Corporation announced a partnership with TikTok to reach out to millions of first-time internet users in India.
ByteDance responded to the government and released a statement stressing that it takes its “responsibilities to this community seriously” and welcoming “this opportunity to fully collaborate with the government to meet and exceed our obligations”.
On TikTok, where all of this began, the reactions have been diverse. Many fans of Team 07 continue to express shock and disbelief at the disappearance of their favourite accounts.
“Don’t go please please please please please”.
“Faisu nahi toh TikTok bhi nahi” [If no Faisu, then no TikTok].
“Faisu please be back on TikTok”
A section of those who have caught up with the news are angry and outraged. “I used to really like Faisu but now I think he is the world’s biggest loser,” commented one user. Hundreds of others are calling the members of Team 07 “terrorist” and “deshdrohi (traitor)” in their comments on the videos posted by the fan accounts.
Then there are also those who are showing their solidarity with Faisu and his team despite being aware of the reason behind the suspension of their accounts.
“I am a Hindu, Faisu, but we know you haven’t done anything wrong.”
“Bhai, you don’t need TikTok. It’s TikTok that needs you.”
“No one can stop a good artist.”
On July 17, a sessions court in Mumbai rejected the bail application of Team 07’s members. Their lawyers moved the Bombay high court for anticipatory bail. On 23 July, Hasnain Khan and Shadan Farooqui were granted bail. Faisal Shaikh is still awaited in the court.
Posting updates on Instagram since his expulsion from TikTok, Faisu has thanked his fans for their love and assured them that he isn’t going anywhere. He has also told them what he hopes: “Inshallah I will be posting on TikTok soon.”