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Ban on real-money online gaming has been a sore topic in the Indian context. In what comes as a glimmer of hope for the banned real-money skills game industry in the state, the Madras High Court has questioned the validity of the Tamil Nadu Gaming and Police Laws (Amendment) Act 2021. Chief Justice Sanjib Banerjee and Justice Senthilkumar Ramamoorthy, on July 23, raised doubt on the foundation of the Tamil Nadu Gaming and Police Laws (Amendment) Act of 2021. The bench claimed that the law that seeks to ban and criminalize all forms of real-money online gaming had been drafted very poorly.
Online gaming has historically received much flak from governments and politicians who periodically use the industry as a cog in the election campaign machinery. By constantly linking real-money gaming to gambling, portraying it in a negative light, and sweeping its skill quotient under the rug, state administrations have, for the most part, successfully convinced a majority of the masses of the ill-effects associated with online gaming.
In such an environment that is increasingly looking to stifle the industry’s growth, it was refreshing to see the Madras High Court question the foundation of the Tamil Nadu Gaming and Police Laws (Amendment) Act of 2021. Not just that, the High Court even went so far as to defend the skill aspect of certain card games that “require a very high intelligence quotient (IQ) to play them.”
Before we get into what the Madras High Court has said, let’s do a quick recap of what has transpired in the online gaming sector in southern India.
The Flurry of Bans in 2020
The latter part of 2020 witnessed a majority of the south-Indian states closing the door on real-money online gaming. While Telangana was the first south Indian state to impose a legal ban on real-money online games back in 2017, Andhra Pradesh got the ball rolling in 2020 by banning online gaming in September.
Tamil Nadu was quick to join the list, with Governor Banwarilal Purohit promulgating an ordinance banning online gaming, following the state government’s decision in November.
Almost copy-pasting the guidelines followed by Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu turned real-money online gaming into a criminal offense. As per the ordinance, those found playing real money games would be punished with a ₹5,000 fine and six months imprisonment. Those offering such online games in the state would be considered running common gaming houses and penalized with a fine of ₹10,000- and two years imprisonment.
The ordinance also included bans on electronic transfer of funds used for wagering and betting, distributing the winnings, prize money, etc.
Tamil Nadu Tables Bill in State Assembly
In February, Deputy Chief Minister O Panneerselvam introduced the Tamil Nadu Gaming and Police Laws (Amendment) Act 2021 in the state assembly.
Like the ordinance that preceded it, the Bill adjudicated that real-money online gaming was a criminal offense punishable by monetary fine or imprisonment.
According to the statement of objects and reasons of the Bill, gaming using cards, dice, etc., betting or wagering has been banned in Chennai, Madurai, Coimbatore, Salem, Tiruchirappalli, and Tirunelveli, by the Chennai City Police Act, 1888.
The government decided to amend the Tamil Nadu Gaming Act, 1930 (Tamil Nadu Act III of 1930) and to extend the application throughout the state to make consequential amendments to the Chennai City Police Act, 1888 (Tamil Nadu Act III of 1888) and the Tamil Nadu District Police Act, 1989 (Central Act XXIV of 1859), said the Bill.
Madras HC Refuses to Ban Online Video Games
On July 1, the Madras High Court refused to direct the authorities concerned to ban all online and offline video games, allegedly spoiling the school-going children.
While disposing of a PIL petition from the city advocate E Martin Jayakumar, the bench of Chief Justice Sanjib Banerjee and Justice Senthilkumar Ramamoorthy said, “There is no doubt children and young adults these days were addicted to their phones and laptops and their world appears to revolve around these gadgets, the court observed. But the courts cannot pass any such ban order at present,” the first bench said. “Policy matters like these must be looked into by the appropriate governments in the state or the Centre.”
The court added that it would intervene only when there is some illegal activity going on or something detrimental to the larger public interest. But in the current situation, the court won’t issue a diktat but rather leave it to the wisdom of those representing the people.
Madras HC Questions Govt Ban on Real-Money Online Games
Nearly a month after refusing to ban online videos games, the bench of Chief Justice Sanjib Banerjee and Justice Senthilkumar Ramamoorthy, on July 23, raised doubt on the foundation of the Tamil Nadu Gaming and Police Laws (Amendment) Act of 2021. The bench claimed that the law that seeks to ban and criminalize all forms of real-money online gaming had been drafted very poorly. It hinted the government had imposed a blanket ban on games of skill purely based on its sense of morality just before the Assembly elections.
The bench told Advocate General R. Shunmugasundaram, representing the state government, that the administration had neither conducted any study on the possible ill effects nor any empirical data available to take such a decision. It also appeared that no exhaustive discussion had taken place in the Assembly before the law was passed in February this year.
“There’s no doubt that you have the authority to pass a law on the subject. We will also give you the benefit of the presumption that you are doing it for the benefit of the people, but that does not mean you can crack the whip beyond acceptable parameters. This Act appears not to take cognizance of a body of jurisprudence that had preceded on the subject. It appears to be jumbled and confused,” Chief Justice Banerjee said.
“Gambling is an activity whose outcome is purely based on chance and not skill. Betting is completely different from gambling. Here, the Act appears to have been drafted haphazardly that one part does not agree with the other and does not even address the issue you want to address,” he further added. Additionally, the Chief Justice also stated that the High Court would now have to assess whether the law was autocratically obstructing a gamer from displaying his skills.
In what was perhaps a brilliant piece of commentary made by Chief Justice Banerjee, he put forth the example of Egyptian actor Omar Sharif. The ‘Doctor Zhivago’ star was ranked among the world’s top contract bridge players. At the 1964 World Bridge Olympiad, he represented the United Arab Republic bridge squad, and in 1968 he was playing captain of the Egyptian team in the Olympiad. Expectedly, he made a fortune by pursuing his exceptional talent for contract bridge. The Chief Justice pondered that if the state puts a blanket ban on playing games, anyone who possesses skills like Sharif would be prevented from displaying their talents. This, in turn, would be a violation of their rights.
Advocate General Shunmugasundaram defended the government’s decision to pass the law by drawing light on the cases where some people committed suicide after losing a lot of money due to their addiction to online games. He even brought up a case where a man had attempted to kill his daughters when they refused to give money.
Instead of being moved by the argument in favor of the government, the Chief Justice slammed the Advocate General by saying, “Just because one mad man had indulged in such thing, does not mean you can impose a blanket ban on all games of skill.”
Present at the hearing were a battery of senior counsel, including Abhishek Manu Singhvi, AK Ganguli, C. Aryama Sundaram, and P.S. Raman, representing several companies offering online games in the state, only to be stopped after the law had been passed.
Among them, Raman put forth the argument that the government had chosen to impose a blanket ban on online rummy, poker, and so on just because seven deaths had been reported in the last five years due to the addiction to the games. He argued that the state government had chosen to ignore the Supreme Court ban placed on Jallikattu, even though around 20 people die every year during the festival. In comparison, some seven people have died in five years due to playing online games.
Based on these facts, Raman questioned, “How can an event which is not a crime in the physical world become a crime in the virtual world?”
After hearing them out, the judges adjourned the matter to Monday for the Advocate General to continue his arguments.
In the light of the Madras High Court’s views towards the Tamil Nadu Gaming and Police Laws (Amendment) Act of 2021, it looks like there may be a light at the end of the tunnel. While it is still too early to comment, it may just be the shot in the arm that the real-money online gaming industry needed to revive itself in south India.