The Andhra Pradesh government on Thursday declared online gambling activities illegal. State Information Minister Perni Venkataramaiah — better known locally as Nani — announced the decision after a Cabinet meeting. However, the government will not block any gambling apps and websites that offer stakes in poker, rummy, or similar games. Instead, it will make such activity a cognizable offence by amending the AP Gaming Act, 1974. Citizens will still be able to access these services, but now they can be prosecuted if caught.

In a press conference after the Cabinet meeting, Venkataramiah said that per the new laws “organisers” of online gambling activity could be jailed for a year, and for two years in case of repeated convictions. The players themselves can be jailed for six months. “There are a lot of companies that are offering gambling serves online. They are taking our youth on the wrong path. This is why the YS Jagan Mohan Reddy government has decided to make illegal all gambling activity like rummy and poker,” he said. A government order to this effect will be issued in the coming days.

Technically, not a ban on online gambling

Kumar Vishwajeet, principal secretary at the state home department, confirmed to MediaNama that the government will not be banning any mobile applications or websites within the state.

It will only issue an ordinance to amend the existing AP Gaming Act, 1974 with an ordinance to make online gambling a cognizable and non-bailable offence. Until now, due to an absence of legislation pertaining to online gambling, it has existed in a grey area. He explained:

We are not saying we will block anything. We are saying that if we catch someone indulging in online gambling, we will put them in jail. The amendment [is] not for banning anything. Previously, when someone was playing it was a simple non-cognizable offence. Now, we have made it a cognizable, non-bailable offence. We have made it a stringent law.

Websites and apps will remain available, but people will be “asked” to not use them

The state government will not proactively prosecute any website or app that offers gambling and betting services. Admitting that the law won’t be “absolute”, Vishwajeet said the government believes it will nevertheless act as a deterrent. “These apps and websites will continue to offer their services. But we are asking out people not to indulge in them […] Once certain people are caught and sent to jail, the other will fear participating in these activities,” he said.

Fantasy leagues will be out of purview

Fantasy leagues will be out of its purview as well. When asked about the argument that they could be considered games of luck, he said, “Well, you make thousands of arguments like that. Everyone has their own perception. This amendment will not include fantasy leagues under the purview of gambling,” he said. Vishwajeet said that that this amendment would only be about “betting”. “Anything that has betting involved in it will be covered by this,” he said. When asked if this would cover all games of chance (for instance, some mobile apps offer games of ludo with stakes), he said, “We are not bothered about chance or anything. If betting is involved, money is involved, it will be in the purview of this amendment.”

‘Largely a political move, will not result in much change’

Abhishek Malhotra, managing partner at TMT Law Practice, argued that the AP government’s move seemed largely political and he doubted it would have much impact on the activity. He argued that even if companies were to incorporate geoblocking in their apps or websites, such restriction could be easily circumvented by users. He reasoned that the government was trying to use the new law as a deterrent.

Malhotra said that even though a platform may know someone located in a state where such activity is prohibited is trying to access its services, on record, because of the geoblocking software in place, they can claim they ignorance of the user’s location. “Hence, the companies will have nothing against admitting someone like that to play”

How Indian states govern online betting/gambling

Gaming and gambling is a state subject under the 7th Schedule of the Constitution of India, hence it is at liberty to make its own laws for the same.

States are free to formulate their laws around gaming and gambling since they are state subjects under the Constitution. Most states, however, still don’t have any provisions that take into account online gambling. Their laws are till based on the broad base of the Public Gambling Act, 1867.

Regulation of gambling, both offline and online, is dependent on two factors: (i) whether gambling itself is allow and (ii) whether a game is of skill or change.

Sikkim was one of the first states to enact a law allowing regulated online gambling for games such as poker, rummy, blackjack, roulette and backgammon in 2008. Nagaland legalised online gambling, albeit only “games of skills”, in 2015. Games of skill include, according to the Nagaland government’s definition, both rummy and poker, as well as chess, quizzes, and even virtual racing games. On the flip side, Telangana in 2017 expanded its Telangana Gaming Act, 1974 which continues to prohibit online gambling, while explicitly defining rummy as not a game of skill.

Meanwhile, both rummy and poker have been deemed as games of skill in some states. In the Satyanarayana Case, the Supreme Court had rules that rummy was not entirely a game of chance, and it was unlike the “three-card game”. The West Bengal Gambling and Prize Competitions Act, 1957 excludes bridge, poker and rummy from its definition of “gambling”. At the same time, according to a Gujarat High Court judgement in 2017, poker is a “game of chance”.