Why one Indian MP wanted crosswords banned

In 1954, K Rama Rao moved a Bill to treat crossword contests as lotteries or gambling, arguing they hurt the small newspapers

You don’t see many people solving crossword puzzles in Delhi now, but those who do are considered ‘brainy’. It is a good badge to wear. Crossword fans might alienate friends and family, but the law does not see them as enemies. Cops would like it if all young males devoted their idle hours to cracking crossword puzzles.

Could it be considered a criminal activity by any stretch of the imagination? Well, 60 years ago an Indian member of Parliament demanded a ban on crossword puzzles, saying they were lotteries masquerading as a test of language skill.

Righteous indignation

Kotamaraju Rama Rao was an eminent journalist close to then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. From 1938 to 1946, he was editor of National Herald newspaper started by Nehru. But at the time he declared war on crossword puzzles he was an MP from Madras state.

On March 5, 1954, Rao moved a Bill seeking to amend the Indian Penal Code (IPC) so that crosswords would be treated as lotteries or gambling, and banned. Newspapers that published them, and the people who solved them, would be punishable with fines and imprisonment.

English precedent

Crossword puzzles had become problematic in the West because they were run as contests with handsome cash rewards. Newspapers insisted crosswords were a game of skill, but they were accused of running lotteries in the guise of contests. Lord Heward, chief justice of the Kings Bench Division in England, had ruled in Coles vs Odhams Press (1936):

“The element of skill, if any, is — in my opinion — to be directed and directed only, to the lucky guessing of the details of a mysterious collection of unrelated words, selected beforehand by a person whose idiosyncrasies are as completely concealed as his methods, and whose ignorance may be coextensive with the wisdom of Solomon. I see the words ‘lottery’ written all over this scheme.

crossword3

Indian problems

Rao quoted this judgment while arguing for his IPC amendment. “People who want to solve them for money run after illusions and in the end they lose more than their gain,” he said, adding: “They involve besides, a lot of waste of time.”

He was not so much against crossword puzzles as their being run as contests with cash rewards. “My Bill is not a spoilsport affair,” he said.

Accept for a moment that crosswords were indeed lotteries — did they merit the Parliament’s time and amendment of the penal code? Rao thought they did, and he gave compelling reasons.

Dangerous for journalism and democracy

Rao said crossword contests run by the big ‘capitalist’ newspapers jeopardised the survival of smaller papers. Hear him:

“The capitalist…starts a paper…he immediately starts a series of competitions, these crosswords and square-words, with offers of big prizes. People go in for his newspaper not because it has any intrinsic merit, but because every one of them feels that he may be one of the lucky ones to win a prize.

“I say this is not journalism…Bogus circulation so obtained forms the basis for getting advertisements…If you allow newspapers to be built up by press magnates in this manner…the smaller newspapers will be killed…In an age of adult franchise it would be dangerous to allow money power to prevail…the voice of the small man will be hushed and the voice of the big man will be heard all over the land. Democracy will go to the wall.”

Revenue loss

Then there was the question of revenue lost by the government. Legally, crossword contests were run in a grey zone and newspaper publishers thwarted all attempts at regulation by shifting the contests to other states.

For instance, when Bombay state started regulating crossword contests in April 1951, four of the largest newspapers — including The Times of India — moved their contests out of the state, causing the government a loss of Rs 400,000 in revenue. Hence, Rao wanted a law that would apply across India. “Gambling is bad, and if it is bad in Bombay it cannot be good in Calcutta.”

Not only was the government deprived of revenue, Rao said, the participants were also cheated. “In the distribution of these prizes there is a good deal of chicanery.”

Impassioned plea

Rao moved the Bill with these words: “In the name of everything just, decent and civilised, and in the name of fair and honest journalism, I protest, most strongly protest, against this dangerous, mean, mischievous invention — the crossword puzzle.”

Kanhaiyalal D Vaidya, another MP, seconded him by mentioning Mahatma Gandhi’s aversion to crossword puzzles. Vaidya said when Gandhi had made his views known, some Bombay newspapers had promptly suspended their crossword contests. However, the ‘disease’ had resurfaced after his assassination.

Quiet burial

Speaking for the government, then Home minister K N Katju agreed with Rao that crossword puzzles led to “grave abuses”. He said his ministry had been in consultation with the state governments on the issue but it required careful consideration. “We cannot dispose of it offhand simply by adding a section in the Indian Penal Code without going into the ramifications of it.”

Katju assured Rao the government would find a solution and requested him to withdraw his Bill. “I do not think I can agree to the passage of this Bill straight off in the shape in which it stands — you simply add a clause and ask people to go to jail for a year or to pay a fine.”

So Rao withdrew what might have been the most astonishing piece of legislation regarding crosswords, and that’s where the matter ended.

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