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The walls seem to be closing in on real-money online gaming in south India. The latest state gearing up to join the ‘ban real-money gaming’ bandwagon after Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, and Tamil Nadu is Kerala. On February 9, Kerala’s state government told the Kerala High Court (HC) that the government has proposed to regulate online rummy by issuing a notification under the Kerala Gaming Act, 1960. The Act, at present, exempts games that exhibit elements of skill from the provisions of the Act. The notification proposes to remove the special exemption given to online rummy under the Gaming Act.
On January 12, a plea had been submitted to the Kerala HC asking for real-money gaming platforms to be regulated and monitored. Filed by film director Pauly Vadakkan, the petition pleaded the Kerala HC to declare online betting and gambling, particularly online rummy, unlawful and illegal. The plea also asked for direction to the Kerala state government to ban these online betting or gambling “of any nature” until an appropriate regulatory regime is established and regulations are framed by the state government.
The Kerala HC subsequently issued a notice to Indian cricket team captain Virat Kohli and the state government. Besides Kohli, a division bench, headed by Chief Justice S. Manikumar, also issued notices to Malayalam actor Aju Varghese and South Indian actress Tamannaah Bhatia.
On Tuesday, the government’s official representative, Aravid Kumar Babu, publicly announced the government’s decision to regulate online rummy during the petition’s hearing. Babu also told the court that the state police chief has already forwarded a proposal seeking a ban on online gambling in the state, and the framework for the same will be released in due course.
This is not the first time an adverse action has been taken against the online rummy sector in Kerala. In February 2019, while hearing a case between Kerala Police and secretary of Sopanam Arts and Sports Club, K Ramachandran, a division bench of the Kerala HC, had deemed rummy to be a game of skill but ruled that it be considered gambling if played for stakes. The ruling made playing rummy for stakes an offense under the Kerala Gaming Act.
Previously, games of skill such as rummy and poker were technically not banned in Kerala. In fact, Section 14A of the Kerala Gaming Act, 1960 states:
“The Government may if they are satisfied that in any game the element of skills is more predominant than the element of chance, by notification in the Gazette, exempt such game from all or any of the provisions of this Act, subject to such restrictions and conditions as may be specified in the notification.”
The February 2019 decision of the Kerala HC followed the precedents set by the Supreme Court and Madras and Kerala High Court. Acknowledging the exemption given to some games of skill under Section 14A, the Kerala HC in paragraph 19 of its order stated, ‘Admittedly, no notification was issued by the Government, exempting the game of rummy for stakes.’
In a further review of the judgment, it was brought to light that in 1976, the state government had issued a notification SRO No. 1045/76 under the Section 14A that clarified that six games: rummy; card games- 28, 56, and 112; dart throw; ball throw; cup and coin; and shooting contests were exempted from the provisions of the Kerala Gaming Act. The only condition imposed in the notification was that no side-betting would be allowed in these games.
However, the state government’s decision to amend the Kerala Gaming Act by removing the exemption given to online rummy will be a big step towards the eventual eradication of real-money gaming from the state. Given that Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, and Tamil Nadu have already banned real-money online gaming, and Karnataka is on the verge of considering joining the league, this decision of the Kerala state government is perhaps not as surprising.
If the Kerala government does go through with the amendment, which at this point seems more than likely to happen, Karnataka will be the only haven remaining for real-money games like rummy in south India.