West Bengal is one of the states in India with a more liberal stance towards gambling. It is the only state to exempt card games from the definition of gambling. As one of the most populous states, it has one of the largest numbers of punters who indulge in both legal and illegal forms of betting.
Other forms of gambling including sports betting are prohibited. The exceptions include horse betting and lottery, both of which remain very popular as legal forms of gambling in the state.
Under the West Bengal Gambling & Prize Competition Act, 1957 card games such as rummy, bridge and poker are excluded from the definition of gambling and gaming. Such games can be organized for the public as long as a permit is obtained from the District Magistrate or Sub-divisional Magistrate or Commissioner of Police Calcutta.
The Act also permits horse racing and has provisions of exemptions for games of skill. Controversies surrounding cricket and match-fixing remain in the spotlight and has brought into focus the need to expand legislation and regularize many more forms of gambling and betting.
Betting on horse racing is exempted from the ambit of gambling under the West Bengal Gambling & Prize Competition Act, 1957. The state is home to the Royal Calcutta Turf Club (RCTC), founded in 1847 in the populous city of Calcutta, now Kolkata.
This premier horse racing organization hosts a large number of prestigious races, including the Calcutta Derby Sweeps – in the 1930s, it was the largest sweepstake in the world. Races are held at the Kolkata Race Course from July to September and November to March. Some other prestigious race events include the Calcutta Derby and Queen Elizabeth Cup.
Under the West Bengal Gambling & Prize Competition Act, 1957, horse racing is permitted upon granting of a license by the state. However, there are no off-course betting centres permitted in the state. The state collects as much as $250,000 a year in taxes from the RCTC and continues to permit licensed bookmakers to operate at the RCTC under the Act.
The Supreme Court lay to rest any ambiguity on horse racing in the landmark case of Dr KR Lakshmanan v. State of Tamil Nadu (AIR 1996 SC 1153). The three-judge bench ruled that racing was a test of equine speed and stamina. Betting involved the regular assessment of a horse and jockey’s physical capacity and the use of other evaluative skills. Therefore, horse racing was a game where winning depended substantially and preponderantly on the skill, which is why many states like West Bengal have permitted betting on horse racing.
Bengal has a famous venue for cricket matches in the world – the formidable Eden Gardens. International and domestic matches are held regularly in this giant stadium in Kolkata.
Like every other state in India, West Bengal does not permit betting on cricket and other sports. This activity also falls under the ambit of the West Bengal Gambling & Prize Competition Act, 1957. Local law enforcement often cracks down on illegal betting centres. However, cricket betting continues to be a multimillion-dollar industry with money exchanging hands on every match and every ball bowled.
With the rise of the IPL and the massive popularity enjoyed by the local team Kolkata Knight Riders, cricket betting has increased in the state in the last decade. Individuals getting arrested for involvement in betting rackets have become a regular sight on the pages of Kolkata newspapers these last few years.
While cricket is very popular, West Bengal is rightfully known as a football-crazy state. Local derbies involving teams like East Bengal and Mohun Bagan attract frenzied crowds and a lot of illegal betting.
In recent decades, online betting has become quite popular, for both cricket and football in Bengal. There is no law that prohibits online betting on cricket and Indians love placing online bets. The Information Technology Act is riddled with loopholes that allow online betting to continue online.
With millions of dollars bet every day it is time that states like West Bengal changed their stance on sports betting. Every wager made can contribute significantly to the state’s revenue while legalization can only deter the proliferation of illegal betting dens.
Lottery in West Bengal is organized by the state in accordance with the provision of the Lottery Regulation Act of 1998 and West Bengal State Lottery Rules, 1968. In a bid to clamp down on daily and online lotteries the state government amended the law in 2011 which mandated lottery organizers to pay as much as $1700 for each draw and around $8500 for bumper draws.
Officials claim the move was to prevent unauthorized lotteries from flourishing in the state and also enrich its exchequer. The decision to increase taxes was made since a court ruling prevented the state government from banning online and daily lotteries completely. The state-sponsored Banglakshmi draw used to be held twice a month with several bumper draws held during important festivals such as Diwali, New Year, and Rath.
In 2018, the state government under Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee instructed the lottery department to increase the number of draws. From once a week, it was converted to daily draws, resulting in a huge increase in sales – worth Rs 2,100 crore in 2018.
The new GST tax regime in India has dealt a severe blow to the lottery industry, as it steeply hiked the tax from 12% to a whopping 28% in one go. In March 2020, many lottery retailers in West Bengal were forced to close shop due to the new regime.
Under the tax rate, the income of lottery agents and sellers have been reduced to a fraction of what it was before. The agents have been put in a position where their business has become highly impractical. The onus is now to in state government to take relief measures (increase the agent commission) to save the lottery industry in West Bengal.
As mentioned earlier, card games such as rummy, poker, flush, and bridge are excluded from the definition of gambling under the West Bengal Gambling & Prize Competition Act, 1957.
In a 2015 ruling, the Calcutta High Court passed an order in the case of Kizhakke Naduvath Suresh v. State of West Bengal & Others that prohibited the state government, local law enforcement and other authorities from interfering with poker games conducted by K.N. Suresh, the petitioner.
The three-judge panel observed that poker was a game of skill and the petitioner was well within the West Bengal statue that excluded poker from the domain of gambling. The state was asked to refrain from harassing the petitioner. With the approval of the High Court, other poker clubs in the state were allowed to operate without apprehension about running an illegal activity.
Following the ruling, the Indian Poker Association (IPA) launched more operations at Kolkata’s Princeton Club, with an increase in Indian poker players online. In 2019, the IPA-sponsored poker game at Siliguri Hotel was raided by the police, which also harassed the participants and Association members. The incident resulted in a case that was settled by the High Court, once again in favour of poker.
The exemption of poker from the ambit of gambling in the West Bengal Act and the latest court decisions allow one to safely conclude that playing poker and similar card games for money would be permitted due to the skill involved in these games in the state.
Under the Public Gambling Act, 1867 Section 12 all games of skill are exempt from penal provisions while the West Bengal Gambling and Prize Competition Act 1957 excludes card games, which makes it clear that there is now no law that prevents gambling on card games in the state.
Popular online casinos continue to offer a wide range of table and card games to Indian residents. Since many gaming legislations do not cover online gaming there are still many grey areas. However, despite the lack of jurisprudence players from the state of West Bengal can continue to enjoy the pleasures of gambling online without any breach of law.