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Plea in Kerala High Court demands ban on ‘any form’ online gambling until state govt forms regulatory regime

There is a fresh plea, this time in the Kerala High Court, asking for online gambling and wagering platforms — or real-money gaming platforms depending on what state you are in — be regulated and monitored. Filed by one Pauly Vadakkan, a film director, the petition pleaded the Kerala HC to declare online betting and gambling, particularly online rummy, unlawful and illegal. The plea also asks 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 petition was filed on January 12 by Vadakkan’s lawyer Jomy K. Jose.

On January 28, the Kerala High Court issued notice to all parties enlisted in the petition. It said that the state government should respond to the averments made in the petition and prima facie the matter requires the state government’s “serious attention”.   

Senior government pleader Aravindakumar Babu took notice for the Kerala state government, secretary to Kerala IT department, and Kerala State Police Chief. Suvin R. Menon took notice for TRAI. Notice was also issued to PlayGames 24×7 Pvt. Ltd. (which operates RummyCircle), Mobile Premier League, Virat Kohli, Aju Varghese and Tamannaah Bhatia. 

‘Technology, COVID-19 led to more usage of online gambling sites’

The most common forms of gambling historically have been card games such as teen patti, poker, rummy, bridge, as well as sports betting, the petition said. “With the dawn of technology these gaming effectively extended their reach and popularity via digital medium. Most popular online gaming sites in India are card game sites hosting Rummy and Poker tournaments,” it added. the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting lockdowns, many people, particularly the young and teenagers have “fallen into the trap of these online gambling sites”. RummyCircle, operated by PlayGames 24×7, is among the many popular online gaming applications.

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The petition claims that online gambling games depend on chance, rather than skill. Online rummy platforms are a “growing menace” in the state; they attract audiences with false promises, such as of Rs. 25,000 in daily prize winnings, when the probability of such winnings are “slim to none” in reality, the petition declared. 

‘Existing Kerala state law inadequate to deal with online gaming’

According to Vadakkan, the Kerala Gaming Act, 1960, is inadequate to handle the “grave situation” arising out of online gambling services. The Kerala Gaming Act, 1960, bans physical gambling and betting (only exempting lotteries) and makes it a punishable offence to run a common gaming house, being found in a common gaming house. Section 14A of the law empowers the state government to expressly exempt skill-predominant games from all provisions of the law, subject to prescribed conditions. 

However, the law does not bring online gambling or betting within its purview, given that it was drafted 80 years ago. Online platforms leverage this and offer betting activities; laws needs to framed to bring this under the government’s regulatory purview.

The petition pointed out that Telangana, Assam, Odisha, have banned online rummy (edit: and other games of skill and chance). The High Courts of Gujarat and Madras have directed their respective state legislatures to explore the possibility of regulating the regime. The Andhra Pradesh government has prohibited all forms of real money gaming, including those done online, including games of skill.

Celebrity endorsements are worsening the situation

Celebrities such as Kohli and Varghese endorsing or promoting such platforms has further attracted “unsuspecting people”.

The plea claimed that the primary targets of such services are the middle-to-low-income group who are to make easy money. People who use such “fraud platforms” very often use up what is left of their life savings, the petition said. It cited the alleged suicide of a 28-year-old ISRO employee for Trivandrum district, who reportedly ran up a debt of Rs 21 lakh by playing online rummy. Many other people from different parts of the state have lost lakhs of rupees in online gambling games; such cases don’t get filed because the victim may also get prosecuted, Vadakkan claimed. 

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Kohli, who is captain of the Indian cricket team, has 152 million followers across social media platforms and is the most influential person among the youth and society in general. He is the brand ambassador for esports and fantasy gaming platform Mobile Premier League. Varghese and Bhatia are artists in Kerala. Their popularity is used to promote online gambling and “accumulate huge amount by cheating”. 

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