Online gaming in India has been in the doldrums for a while now. Adding to the dilemma is the latest news coming from Maharashtra. The Aurangabad bench of the Bombay High Court recently asked the Maharashtra government to clarify its stand on whether online poker amounts to gambling or it is a game of skill. The Bombay Prevention of Gambling Act, 1887, deems it illegal to run a gaming house but is unclear on the legality of online and offline poker. In September 2021, the Maharashtra government was looking to legalize online betting to boost its tax revenue. However, the latest news has left the online gaming industry in the state under a dark cloud, specifically online poker.
The question on poker arose after a public interest litigation (PIL) filed by Munawar Ahmed through advocate Ajay S Deshpande claimed that due to the inaction of the Maharashtra government, several private companies were hosting online poker games under the pretext of passing off poker as a “game of skill” despite knowing that the game was about “betting” and “wagering”.
The bench of Justice V. K. Jadhav and SC More heard the PIL and said, “We need to understand the stand of State of Maharashtra as to whether this poker game is a gambling or it is a game of skill.”
The petition sought a restraint on the “illegal activity” of conducting a game of poker on online and offline avenues. The petitioner claimed that he was aggrieved by the inaction of the state Home department, due to which private gaming companies were passing this game off as a “game of skill.”
Ahmed argued that the way these companies have been conducting their online poker games was fundamentally driven by the concept of “wagering,” as well as “betting,” leading to “addiction to gambling,” whereas gaming activities are meant to promote “fun and excitement” for people.
The petitioner also said that companies offering gaming services lack an effective mechanism to verify the age of persons playing it, and “there is a possibility that even a minor child may indulge in the said activity.” He also sought direction from the court to restrain companies running online and offline poker games and said that the state government should enforce gambling prohibition law.
After state government lawyer M.M. Nerlikar sought time to file an affidavit in response to the plea, the bench allowed the same and posted the matter for further hearing to February 8.