In a bizarre case, a Chennai based advocate filed a petition for banning of online gambling activities, in the Madras High Court, while also seeking the arrest of Indian Cricket Captain, Virat Kohli, and Actress, Tamannah Bhatia, for promoting online gambling platforms and corrupting the mind of the youth. The petition is a result of a recent suicide of a 19-year youth who failed to repay his debts accumulated from online gambling and alleges that gambling companies use influential celebrities like Virat Kohli in abetting youngsters to gamble online. Very recently, the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court expressed its anguish over the lack of regulations for online gambling platforms and stressed upon the immediate need to address and regulate online games in the country. The single-Judge Bench correlated this with a rise in criminal activity being committed by "unemployed youth" who may "go to any level to meet their loss". The present petition, however, takes this train of thought a step further to pray for the blanket shutdown of these platforms; the arrest of all individuals running them; and, most peculiarly, that of celebrities endorsing the same.
Dissecting the Plea
While the regulation of gambling websites has been the subject matter of several State statutes (e.g. Sikkim Online Gaming Regulation Act, 2008, Nagaland Prohibition of Gambling and Promotion and Regulation of Online Games of Skill Act, 2016, etc.), and there have been numerous cases in various courts on online gambling activities, the liability of individuals advertising or endorsing these platforms has never been called into questioning. At best, the Consumer Protection Act, 2019, comes closest to imparting accountability towards those individuals who endorse misleading advertisements. Furthermore, a perusal of the Madras High Court in the aforementioned matter itself would show that the legality of online gambling platforms is not something that has ever been decided upon by the apex court. When it comes to games involving stakes, the Supreme Court has been perspicuous: those games which depend upon the player exercising their skill would not be considered gambling. Even if there is an element of chance involved, as long as the outcome depends majorly on the skills of the player, the game would be that of "mere skill" and thus, excluded from the definition of gambling. The idea of trying individuals for abetment of suicide in youngsters after getting them hooked to online gambling is when the plea becomes even more precariously placed. Abetting suicide requires "intention and involvement of accused to aid or instigate commission of suicide." There must also be a "course of conduct or action of intentionally aiding or facilitating another person to end life." In light of these very well-settled principles of penal law relating to the abetment of suicide, it can be reasonably concluded that Virat Kohli et al. are not going to be tried for the offence anytime soon.
The regulation of online gambling activities is most definitely a vacuum which needs to be filled by the concerned authorities; the faster, the better. It is a case of concern that even after numerous cases on illegal online gaming and the call for regulation of online gambling by various courts throughout the nation; the legislature has shown little or no interest in providing clarity on the matter. A 2018 Deloitte report attributes the penetration of low-cost smart phones and a rise in internet connectivity in urban markets to the projection of India becoming the largest potential market for online gaming. Moreover, various international players have also been successfully exploiting the lacuna in our system and have introduced several online gambling websites in the Indian market, legally. However, the present petition does not seem to be the one which is aimed at achieving these ends and fails to ask the right questions. In fact, serious allegations such as these are more likely to dilute the seriousness of the issue at hand than help with lacunae in the law.
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