What the Madras HC verdict on online rummy, poker, fantasy sports reveals

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There has been a certain degree of resentment against online games, with growing voices rallying around either regulation or ban. While ‘games of skill’ have found support in several quarters, ‘games of chance’ have faced outright condemnation.

“What was before the Madras High Court, on the one hand, is the right to freedom bestowed upon the individuals to live their life in their own way and on the other hand, the freedom to carry on any lawful business, interlaced with notions of morality, politics, and appeasement,” argues advocate G Natarajan in The Hindu.

In a sense, the debate in the state commenced when a few cases of suicides due to alleged addiction to online gaming were reported.

The Madras High Court in a case had said, “this court hopes and trusts that this government shall take note of the present alarming situation and pass suitable legislation, thereby, regulating and controlling such online games through a license, of course, keeping in mind the law of the land as well as the judicial precedents in this regard.”

The history and origin of the Gaming Act

In November 2020, the state issued an ordinance to ban online gaming, wagering or betting in the cyber world. This ordinance was later enacted as an amendment of the Tamil Nadu Gaming Act 1930 and was called the Tamil Nadu Gaming and Police Laws (Amendment) Act 2021.

Before the amendment, the Tamil Nadu Gaming Act 1930 prohibited certain games of chance, as highlighted in the Act. However, section 11 of the Act further stated that these prohibitions would not apply to pure games of skills. 

But with this amendment, the thin line between “game of skills” and “game of chance” was challenged and the scope of Section 11 inverted, stating that if a game of skill is played with a bet, wager of money at stake, the law shall be applicable, and involved parties shall be punished. This means that even PV Sindhu can be booked under this Act if she lived in Tamil Nadu.

“The above legislative action was assailed as being blanket, disproportionate and excessive. It was argued that Entry 34 of List II of 7th Schedule to the Constitution grants legislative power to the States on “betting and gambling” and is what is not judicially laid down as not amounting to betting and gambling if sought to be brought under the ambit of the said Entry, it amounts to overarching, it was argued,” writes Natarajan

Hence, the Court had no option but to strike down the amendments as being ultra vires the Constitutional guarantees of freedom. The Court also came down heavily on State for adopting such an extreme legislative step to appease the voters ahead of elections.

“Hopefully, the government will once again approach the issue in a more pragmatic way by balancing the competing interests. In a rights-conscious society, if morality is sought to be enforced from outside, fate is certain. Rather, the State and all its stakeholders should endeavor to develop a societal milieu, where morality is seeded, evolved, and nurtured naturally so that there is no need to guard it externally,” concludes Natarajan.