The High Court for southwestern Kerala state has struck down a state government ban on online rummy, a vindication for India’s gaming industry as it moves to fight a similar ban in neighbouring Karnataka state.
Justice T.R. Ravi’s 53-page decision on Monday not only affirmed the legality of online rummy, but explicitly defended online skill gaming generally, including with stakes.
“On the question whether inclusion of stakes for playing Online Rummy would make any difference to the nature of the game as a game of skill, I hold in the negative and declare that Online Rummy played either with stakes or without stakes remains to be a 'game of skill’,” he wrote.
The “stakes cannot be the criterion for assessing whether a game is one involving skill or chance”, he said.
By retaining skill status regardless of its online or traditional format and regardless of the presence of stakes, the court ruled that online rummy enjoys constitutional protection as a business activity and does not amount to gambling.
The decision follows a key progressive High Court ruling in neighbouring Tamil Nadu state that pushed back against executive and legislative attacks on online skill gaming with stakes and potentially erodes widespread, conservative resistance to gaming regulation in southern India.
The Kerala government triggered the case in February when it issued a notification exempting “online rummy when played for stakes” from a 1976 amendment to the Kerala Gaming Act 1960. The amendment had permitted rummy and other named skill games if no side betting by onlookers took place.
The case was brought by several online gaming companies, including Play Games24x7, Gameskraft Technologies and Flutter-owned Junglee Games India.
As with the Madras High Court’s withering attack on Tamil Nadu legislation banning online skill gaming, Justice Ravi was unimpressed with the Kerala government, calling the notification “totally ill-conceived”.
The notification singling out online rummy is “arbitrary, illegal and violative of the fundamental rights guaranteed to the petitioners under … the Constitution of India and hence not enforceable”, Ravi wrote.
Justice Ravi also chided the Division Bench of the Kerala High Court for declaring rummy with stakes illegal and for calling for government clarification of online gaming policy.
Ravi wrote that his Division Bench colleagues had made numerous errors of law, including contradiction of Supreme Court decisions defending skill gaming with stakes.
While subject to appeal to a full bench of the High Court, Monday’s ruling is consistent with a growing body of opinions from state courts defending skill gaming, many of which Ravi cited in his judgment.
Justice Ravi’s refusal to distinguish between online and traditional modes of gaming in terms of their all-important skill status was also as strong a judicial affirmation of the online industry as any to date.
In Karnataka, meanwhile, unhappy industry heavyweights are lining up to file an appeal against a sweeping ban on online gaming with stakes.
Legal sources quoted by the Hindustan Times said on Monday that company petitions to the High Court are in preparation after the state government said earlier in September that it would ban all online “wagering or betting”.
The Karnataka High Court has been more cautious than corresponding courts in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, with most of its role to date involving pressure on the government to clarify online gaming legislation.
Still, the umbrella effect of the new ban has shaken trade groups and other interests in the state, including fantasy sports and esports. Karnataka is one of India’s leading technology hubs and a magnet for cashed-up unicorns and smaller start-ups.