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Over the past few months, the Indian gaming industry has undergone a lot of upheavals. In early September, Andhra Pradesh banned online gaming on the pretext that it was corrupting the youth. The western state of Gujarat has always had a tumultuous relationship with online gaming, particularly poker.
A Gujarat High Court (HC) order dated September 29 sent shockwaves through the online gaming fraternity. In its order, the court asked the state government to step in and formulate desirable regulations for the industry. The statement was issued by the High Court following a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed by Amit Nair over the mushrooming of online gambling websites due to unclear provisions of the Gujarat Prevention of Gambling Act, 1887. The order became public on Tuesday, October 13.
The Bench comprising of Justice Vikram Nath and Justice J B Pardiwalla in the case of Amit M. Nair vs. the State of Gujarat issued an order in response to this PIL stating,
“We direct the State of Gujarat to consider this writ application as a representation. If the online games involve gambling and if they are being played in the State of Gujarat, then it is expected of the state to deal with the same appropriately as gaming is a subject matter of List II of the Schedule VII of the Constitution of India.”
In the past, a Gujarat High Court order all but practically resulted in a state-wide ban on poker, forcing most online poker sites to withdraw services from the state. The case dates back to 2017 when the Gujarat police had raided poker clubs in Surat and Ahmedabad and forcibly shut them. The Gujarat High Court subsequently rejected the civil petition filed by KN Suresh and his Indian Poker Association (IPA) that sought poker to be recognized as a game of skill. The High Court also ruled that poker amounts to gambling and cannot be permitted. Suresh had filed an appeal against that order that was dismissed by the HC in February 2019.
Suresh subsequently appealed the dismissal, and several other stakeholders, namely Aman Chhabra, Dominance Games Pvt Ltd., and Hotel Ramada, also filed letters patent appeals. Despite their efforts, the case has been repeatedly adjourned by the court. Day-to-day hearings were to be initiated on December 18, 2019, but the court could not take up the appeals on the scheduled date. There have been many more adjournments in the matter since, with the case still pending to be heard.
Now, it seems that the state machinery is closing the net around other forms of real-money online gaming, more specifically rummy.
The HC stated that if any website is either operating or engaged in any gambling games in Gujarat, then the state government should deal with the same in accordance with laws, rules, regulations, and the policy, as may be applicable.
The state government will also have the duty of examining if any online gaming sites are involved in money-laundering or violation of laws relating to foreign exchange.
The HC said the existing Gujarat Prevention of Gambling Act-1887 remains completely silent on the issue, particularly online rummy, even as Internet gambling presents “many of the same concerns that the traditional gambling activities have raised throughout the years.”
The HC also said that while the Supreme Court has held rummy as a game of skill, “the moot question is whether what is being played is rummy in its true sense or it is just pure and simple gambling.”
The HC went on to argue that, “Internet gambling presents essentially many of the same concerns that the traditional gambling activities have raised throughout the years: uneasiness about the morality of the activity; the likelihood of addiction; the possibility of fraud; and the conflict between the state versus central regulations.”
“The questions of morality primarily surface in connection with the Internet gambling’s accessibility to children, because children have potentially unlimited access to the computers and the Internet,” it observed.
After the Andhra Pradesh state government’s crackdown on online gaming, Gujarat may well become the next in line to ban all forms of online gaming.
The state government’s counsel, Manisha Luvkumar Shah, confirmed that the government “shall look into the same at the earliest in accordance with the law.” It now remains to be seen what actions the state government will take to deal with organizations and individuals involved in online gaming in the region.