The Gujarat government has suspended mobile data and bulk SMS and MMS services in Vadodara till Tuesday following communal unrest over a Facebook post that hurt religious sentiments.
The trouble began on Thursday afternoon and flared-up after namaaz on Friday after which the state home department issued orders to suspend these services to prevent the spread of rumours through Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and other social media.
“The situation is under control now. The home department issued the order banning mobile internet and bulk SMS and MMS. Broadband service is not touched,” said E. Radhakrishnan, Vadodara’s police commissioner.
State authorities have taken a series of steps including “banning internet use for group messages and stopping sale of pre-paid mobile cards for few days,” said SK Nanda, additional chief secretary (home), who visited Vadodara to take stock of the situation on Saturday.
HT has however found that the suspension of mobile data services may have been done in violation of procedure and probably exists without any legal basis.
According to government regulations, mobile data and SMS services can only be stopped after directions from the Union home ministry, and not by the state government or the district administration.
“No one other than the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) secretary, based on directions from the Union home ministry can ask a network to stop (such services),” said Rajan Mathews, director general, Cellular Operators Association of India. A senior Supreme Court lawyer specializing in telecom also backed what Mathews said.
State authorities wouldn’t confirm whether they approached the Union home ministry prior to issuing the suspension orders.
DoT secretary Rakesh Garg also denied receiving any request regarding the suspension of data and SMS/MMS services. "I have not received any request… but if Section 144 is enforced, it can cover a wide area, including various services (telecom, transport etc)… But this is in rare occasions that threaten law and order.”
HT has found that Section 144 has not been imposed in Vadodara.
The tension in Vadodara’s old city erupted on Thursday when a man identified as Sunil Rajput posted on Facebook a photoshopped image of a Hindu goddess superimposed on an image of the Muslim holy city of Mecca.
The photograph was circulated via social media triggering communal clashes in which over a dozen vehicles and several shops were set on fire.
On Friday, a few people gathered in the sensitive Fatehpura area and started pelting stones. This prompted the police to fire a dozen rounds in the air and lob teargas shells to disperse the crowd.
Vadodara commissioner Radhakrishnan said that the area had returned to normal on Saturday. “All markets and shops were open,” he added.