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August 3 is now a red-letter day for the online gaming industry in India. The first bench of the Madras High Court, comprising Chief Justice Sanjib Banerjee and Justice Senthilkumar Ramamoorthy, in a historic judgment delivered via video conferencing hours ago, struck down the Tamil Nadu Gaming and Police Laws (Amendment) Act 2021 that had banned and criminalized real money online gaming in the state.
In the last two hearings in the matter, Chief Justice Banerjee and Justice Ramamoorthy had held that a blanket ban on online gaming was a gross violation of an individual’s rights to earn their livelihood through their gaming skills. Adding to that, the Madras High Court, earlier today, stated that a wide-ranging ban on games of skill falls foul of Article 19 (1)(g) (right to practice any profession or to carry on any occupation, trade, or business) of the Constitution.
“I think, better, we throw this out. You get more intelligible legislation passed,” the Chief Justice told Advocate General R. Shunmugasundaram after wondering how the state could impose a blanket ban even on games of skill such as rummy.
The bench further stated that the blanket ban implemented by the state through the Tamil Nadu Gaming and Police Laws (Amendment) Act 2021 was ‘excessive and disproportionate’ to the objective sought to be achieved. It, however, made it clear that the state legislature would be at liberty to enact new legislation for regulating online games.
The online gaming ban had been challenged by several online rummy companies through writ petitions and was represented by senior advocates Abhishek Manu Singhvi, AK Ganguli, C. Aryama Sundaram, and P.S. Raman.
The counsel for the online gaming companies had argued, “Since 1968, the Supreme Court has made it clear that rummy is a game of skill and not a game of chance. Therefore, online rummy cannot be banned.”
The state government had countered the argument by focussing on how young teenagers and adults were losing their earnings and savings due to their addiction to online gaming. While the state government accepted that rummy may be a game of skill, but adamantly stated that the moment it is played for stakes, the skill factor goes out the window, becoming gambling.
On August 3, the bench said the term ‘gambling’ had been interpreted by the Supreme Court to mean only games of chance. The top court had also held that rummy was purely a game of skill. “When it’s a game of skill, Article 19 (1)(g) (right to practice any profession or to carry on any occupation, trade or business) comes into play,” said Chief Justice Banerjee.
The Advocate General responded by stating that when the Supreme Court had ruled that rummy was a game of skill, the higher court had not deliberated whether rummy would continue to be a game of skill even when it is played online. Chief Justice Banerjee conceded that in games like football, online and on-field gaming is different since when played in real life, the game requires exertion of physical energy. However, in cases where mind games are involved, there is no difference where the games are played, in the physical form or in cyberspace.
“Manipulation is possible on cyberspace,” the Advocate General persisted with his argument. To this, Chief Justice Banerjee responded, “Then, you regulate it. You can’t ban the games altogether.”
This landmark judgment by the Madras High Court has sparked hope into the real money online gaming sector that was nearly dead and gone in south India. Given that the Tamil Nadu Gaming and Police Laws (Amendment) Act 2021 was an almost replica of the online gaming bans imposed by Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, the law getting struck down in Tamil Nadu opens up a window for the bans to be challenged in the other two states as well.
*This is a developing story, and we will make further updates once the Madras High Court releases the full copy of the order.