29 Sep 2013

Lessons of Gambling Regulation from the Mahabharata


Indias archaic gambling laws penalise gambling in a common gaming house. Though the Central Public Gambling Act of 1867 and other state Gaming Acts have been severely criticised because they have failed to keep up with the changing times, lawmakers have remained oblivious to the changing times and aspirations of the society.

The Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) has been championing the cause of legalising sports betting and their efforts have gained momentum after the recent IPL bookmaking and fixing scandal revealed the futility of Indias gaming and betting laws. FICCI would be organising a comprehensive conference to urge the government to legalise sports betting on 12th and 13th October 2013 which expects participation from top jurists, industry experts and gaming lawyers.

The main arguments in support of this proposition that is also likely to be taken up by panelists in the conference is that such a move would earn the government at least Rs. 12,000-19,000 crores of annual revenue as it would bring the large underground market mainly controlled by criminal syndicates to the mainstream. Additionally FICCI argues that such a move would also dry up the funds of underworld syndicates as betting is one of their major business operations at present. They further claim that gaming regulation and transparency in betting activities would to a large extent help check fixing and cheating in sport.

While these arguments indeed appear attractive, FICCIs efforts have at best received a lukewarm response from politicians. One of the main reasons why lawmakers cutting across party lines are hesitant to liberalise the gaming sector is the perceived moral, religious and social repercussions of such a decision as well as negative public perception.

The clich├ęd episode in the Mahabharata when the king of Dharma, Yudhistira lost everything including his kingdom, brothers and wife in a game of dice to his uncle Shakuni is used to highlight the problems of gambling addiction and ensure that gambling never gets regulated in India.

In fact, the judiciary also has used Mahabharata to justify the prohibition of gambling and allied games terming it as res extra commercium, outside the fundamental right to free trade and commerce guaranteed by the Constitution . The Mahabharata deprecates gambling by depicting the woeful conditions of the Pandavas who had gambled away their Kingdom writes Chief Justice Das in the landmark The State of Bombay v. RMD Chamrbaugwala Supreme Court decision (1957). Various other recent judicial decisions have cited with approval this line of thinking.

However a deeper examination of the Mahabharata and other ancient religious texts reveals that this statement is not entirely true. Gambling was neither frowned upon nor considered immoral by ancient Hindu culture. Gurcharan Das through his authentic research on the Mahabharata claims that playing dice was part of the ritual and imperial consecration required of the king in the Vedic rajasuya ceremony.

Religious texts accept gambling as a social reality and have never entirely prohibit and criminalised it, though many Rig Vedic verses and comments by jurists like Manu and Kautilya frown upon ill effects of gambling addiction.

Now consider the gambling chapter of the Mahabharata being played out in a modern-day regulated market where gambling was permitted and monitored by an independent agency. It would be safe to assume that dice and other gambling equipment would be strictly scrutinised to ensure fairness for all participants and measures would have been taken to prevent addiction. Indeed such is the role played by Gaming Commissions in the United Kingdom and many other European countries.

Thus, a regulated and fair dice game in Mahabharata would not only have ensured that cheating in the dice game is investigated and Shakuni punished, but the ensuing war and destruction of families would also have been prevented. Indeed the epic would not have played out and there would have been a happy ending if only there was regulated gambling with appropriate regulations.

However, history as they say is a great teacher and hence the Mahabharata episode should not be discounted. Rather, the important take away from the entire episode is that gambling is part of the human instinct (including the king of all virtues and dharma, Yudhishtira) and the only way to deal with the inevitable vice of gambling in society is to transparently regulate it, punish cheating and earn revenues through proper taxation.

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