SC quashes RBI’s ban on Cryptocurrency trading [Full Report]

Supreme Court: The 3-judge bench of Rohinton Fali Nariman, S Ravindra Bhat and V Ramasubramania, JJ has struck down the curb on trading in virtual currency, cryptocurrency and bitcoins in India.

In the 180 pages long verdict penned by Justice Ramasubramania, it was held,

“When the consistent stand of RBI is that they have not banned Virtual currencies (VCs) and when the Government of India is unable to take a call despite several committees coming up with several proposals including two draft bills, both of which advocated exactly opposite positions, it is not possible for us to hold that the impugned measure is proportionate.”

The Court was hearing the matter wherein, the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI), whose members include cryptocurrency exchanges, and others had objected to a 2018 RBI circular directing regulated entities to not deal with cryptocurrencies. The petitioners had argued that the RBI’s circular taking cryptocurrencies out of the banking channels would deplete the ability of law enforcement agencies to regulate illegal activities in the industry. IAMAI had claimed the move of RBI had effectively banned legitimate business activity via the virtual currencies (VCs).

  • Reserve Bank of India issued a “Statement on Developmental and Regulatory Policies” on April 5, 2018, paragraph 13 of which directed the entities regulated by RBI (i) not to deal with or provide services to any individual or business entities dealing with or settling virtual currencies and (ii) to exit the relationship, if they already have one, with such individuals/ business entities, dealing with or settling virtual currencies (VCs).
  • Following the said Statement, RBI also issued a circular dated April 6, 2018, in exercise of the powers conferred by Section 35A read with Section 36(1)(a) and Section 56 of the Banking Regulation Act, 1949 and Section 45JA and 45L of the Reserve Bank of India Act, 1934 and Section 10(2) read with Section 18 of the Payment and Settlement Systems Act, 2007, directing the entities regulated by RBI (i) not to deal in virtual currencies nor to provide services for facilitating any person or entity in dealing with or settling virtual currencies and (ii) to exit the relationship with such persons or entities, if they were already providing such services to them.

The Court took note of the fact that the VCs are not banned, but the trading in VCs and the functioning of VC exchanges are sent to comatose by the impugned Circular by disconnecting their lifeline namely, the interface with the regular banking sector.

“What is worse is that this has been done

      • despite RBI not finding anything wrong about the way in which these exchanges function and
      • despite the fact that VCs are not banned.”

The Court further said that the concern of RBI is and it ought to be, about the entities regulated by it. Till date, RBI has not come out with a stand that any of the entities regulated by it namely, the nationalized banks/scheduled commercial banks/cooperative banks/NBFCs has suffered any loss or adverse effect directly or indirectly, on account of the interface that the VC exchanges had with any of them.

The Court, however, held that anything that may pose a threat to or have an impact on the financial system of the country, can be regulated or prohibited by RBI, despite the said activity not forming part of the credit system or payment system. It explained,

“RBI is the sole repository of power for the management of the currency, under Section 3 of the RBI Act. RBI is also vested with the sole right to issue bank notes under Section 22(1) and to issue currency notes supplied to it by the Government of India and has an important role to play in evolving the monetary policy of the country, by participation in the Monetary Policy Committee which is empowered to determine the policy rate required to achieve the inflation target, in terms of the consumer price index.”

The Court also rejected the contention that the impugned Circular was vitiated by malice in law and that it is a colorable exercise of power. It said,

“Irrespective of what VCs actually do or do not do, it is an accepted fact that they are capable of performing some of the functions of real currencies. Therefore, if RBI takes steps to prevent the gullible public from having an illusion as though VCs may constitute a valid legal tender, the steps so taken, are actually taken in good faith. The repeated warnings through press releases from December 2013 onwards indicate a genuine attempt on the part of RBI to safeguard the interests of the public.”

[Internet and Mobile Association of India v. Reserve Bank of India, 2020 SCC OnLine SC 275, decided on 04.03.2020]

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