(Trigger warning: The following story contains details of personal harm. We urge the readers to use their own discretion before proceeding further.
Suicide helplines -- Maithri, Cochin: +91 239 6272; Sumaitri, New Delhi: 2338 9090, Sneha, Chennai: 91-44-2464 0050, 91-44-2464 0060, Aasra, Mumbai: 9820466726, Fortis Mental Health: 8376804102)
M Gunaseelan (26), a restaurant employee from Madurai, died by suicide on Monday, 6 February 2023. A resident of Arisipalayam in Salem district, Gunaseelan had dropped out of college and was working at a restaurant in Chathamangalam in Madurai district. He reportedly told his co-workers that he recently lost almost Rs 2 lakh and felt hopeless as he struggled to repay his gambling debts.
However, this tragic suicide is not a one-off incident in Tamil Nadu. Even before Gunaseelan's death, several suicides related to online gambling were reported in Tamil Nadu.
The Beeline of Suicides
In November 2022, M Parthiban, a 28-year-old autorickshaw driver, died by suicide allegedly because lost money in online gambling. Parthiban, the father of two young girls, was the family's sole breadwinner.
The very same month, a woman migrant worker, Pandhana Maji, from Odisha, ended her life at Tenkasi in southern Tamil Nadu, after she allegedly suffered losses in online gaming.
In January this year, B Sivanraj (34), a cab driver in Tirunelveli, died by suicide after losing over Rs 15 lakhs to online gambling. As per reports, Sivanraj had also sold land belonging to him and even pledged the gold necklace of his cousin’s wife. Unable to repay his debts, he allegedly took a drastic step.
A four-member committee, appointed by Tamil Nadu government, looked into similar cases of gambling-related deaths and found 17 such cases reported over the past three years alone. However, despite the deaths, measures to stop online gambling are stuck in legislative red tape.
TN's Move To Ban Online Gambling Stuck With the Governor
Considering the report of the four-member committee, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) government promulgated the Tamil Nadu Prohibition of Online Gambling and Regulation of Online Games Ordinance and sent it to the Governor RN Ravi, for his assent, on 1 October 2022. The ordinance lapsed on 27 November 2022 and the bill on the same still awaits the governor's assent.
However, this is not the only bill which is pending approval from the governor. It is to be noted that as on 1 December 2022, the governor had withheld 21 Bills passed by the state legislature. Reportedly, the governor termed the withholding of bills a “courteous way of saying no.”
Does it signify the political differences between the governor and the DMK-led state government? Political analysts say that the practice of using pocket veto to withhold governor's assent is against the spirit of the Constitution.
Speaking to The Quint, political analyst Nilakantan RS said:
"We elect governments to make policy choices for us. And this government has made that policy choice. The elected government has the moral authority in a representative democracy. And the unelected governor is morally bound to give his assent. That he doesn’t is a travesty. RN Ravi really doesn’t have a fig leaf of moral authority to stand between elected government and its policy choices."
Senior journalist and political analyst Shyam told The Quint that even though the state could pass the bill, only the Union government has the authority to prohibit online gaming.
He said, "For instance, horse racing was prohibited by state law during the DMK's resurgence in the 1970s. It was overthrown by the Supreme Court... This highlights the fact that only the Union government has the authority to prohibit online gaming."
The state legislature had previously enacted the Tamil Nadu Gaming and Police Laws (Amendment) Act to ban online gaming, a part of which was struck down by the Madras High Court in 2021 as it did not distinguish between games of skill and chance.
What Do the Current Laws on Online Gambling Say?
Under Section 69A of the Information Technology Act, the government has the power to restrict access to any content to protect the sovereignty and integrity of the country, the security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states, or public order.
According to the advisory issued by the Centre, "In accordance with Paragraph 9 of the Guidelines for Prevention of Misleading Advertisements and Endorsements for Misleading Advertisements 2022 under the Consumer Protection Act, 2019, it has been observed that since betting and gambling are illegal, advertisements of online offshore betting and gambling platforms are prohibited."