TO BET OR NOT TO BET

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By Indians can legally bet on a horse in a race and on rummy, but not on a game of cricket. Reena Martins focuses on the rules of gambling - and the reactions that they evoke
  • Published 5.06.13
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As India’s cricket betting story rages on, discussions about legalising gambling on the game have been gathering momentum. Should betting on cricket, like that on horse racing, be made legal?

Last week, the issue was thrown up once again when Union renewable energy minister Farooq Abdullah publicly supported legalising cricket betting — a position that was sternly opposed by former cricketer and Bharatiya Janata Party leader Kirti Azad.

The law makes a distinction when it comes to betting. India’s gaming laws are governed by the Public Gambling Act, 1867, which draws a line between betting on a game that is based on skill, and merely betting. “The Act (is) not to apply to certain games. Nothing in the foregoing provisions of this Act contained shall be held to apply to any game of mere skill wherever played,” it says.

It’s this use of skill that puts horse racing in a separate bracket. Gambling on horse racing is allowed in India, as was stressed by the Supreme Court in the Dr. K.R. Lakshmanan vs the State of Tamil Nadu case in 1996. The court said that horse racing was a sport that primarily depended on a special ability acquired by training.

“It is the speed and stamina of the horse, acquired by training, which matters,” it said. “Jockeys are experts in the art of riding. Between two equally fast horses, a better trained jockey can touch the winning post.”

While admitting that the element of chance could not be ruled out in a game of skill, the judges described it as one in which success depended principally upon superior knowledge, training, attention, experience and adroitness of the player, like in golf, chess and rummy.

Cricket, it cannot be denied, is a game of skill too. Why is it then illegal to bet on cricket? “No government has the courage to legalise cricket betting as it will entail a huge social cost,” says Y.P. Singh, lawyer and former Mumbai top cop. And there is reason for genuine concern too. “From schoolchildren to labourers, everybody is crazy about cricket. Money meant for the family could be diverted to betting on the game,” he says.

The fact is that betting carries on, irrespective of what the law has to say in India. According to some estimates the cricket gambling market generates anything between $60 million and $200 million annually, depending on the tournament.

Justice Hosbet Suresh, retired judge of the Bombay High Court, believes that courts and laws cannot put an end to “vices” such as gambling but will only push them underground. “People must be educated to keep them away from these vices,” he stresses.

But then gambling, as some may argue, is a part of human nature. After all, if it weren’t for a love of gambling, the Mahabharata war may never have happened. In the State of Bombay vs RMD Chamarbaugwalla case in 1957, the Supreme Court observed that even Kautilya — the great strategist — advocated State control of gambling and was not averse to the State earning some revenue from it.

“Laws need to keep pace with the times and reconsider the whole thing. Legalising betting could enrich the State’s treasury,” says Majeed Memon, criminal lawyer and Nationalist Congress Party leader in Mumbai.

The issue of skill and gambling came up again in the State of Andhra Pradesh vs K. Satyanarayana case in 1967. This time, the focus was on rummy. The Supreme Court held that the card game was “mainly and preponderantly” a game of skill and not entirely one of chance such as flush and brag.

“The fall of the cards has to be memorised and building up of rummy requires considerable skill in holding and discarding cards,” it said.

It is for this reason, says former police officer Singh, that cops raiding gambling dens are told not write the word “rummy” in their reports.

It can be argued that if gambling on horse racing is allowed, cricket betting should also be legalised. But some strive to point out that while horse racing is a sport that mainly interests a small section of the elite, cricket is a game that cuts across the rich and poor. Legalising gambling, according to former cricketer Azad, can bring ruin to poor families.

Social activist and former IPS officer Kiran Bedi calls for a balance. “Rather than allowing the skill of the game to define gambling, we must strike a balance between social costs and financial gains in updating our ‘British-written’ gambling laws,” she says.

“A gambler with inside knowledge of the game should be heavily punished; one whose skill and understanding of the game guides his betting should be encouraged to use his skills for the game instead; and the gambler who has no idea about the game but has money to play around with must be counted as a victim and protected from the vice,” she suggests.

Law minister Kapil Sibal has been promising a legal fix to curb match-fixing and cricket betting on the spot. But gambling, under the Constitution, is a state subject. Two states — Goa and Sikkim — have their own laws on gambling. While Goa has its legal casinos, Sikkim has casinos and has also legalised betting on cricket and other sports.

So can the Centre act on this? Or will the brouhaha remain just that — angry words that lead to nothing?