Prolonged applause by the ruling BJP competed with cries of "shame" by opposition members in parliament as President Ram Nath Kovind today praised the controversial citizenship law that has provoked protests across the country.
"The father of our nation - Mahatma Gandhi-ji - had said after partition that Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, and other religious minorities in Pakistan and Bangladesh (East Pakistan) should be granted citizenship of India if they came seeking refuge. We must respect and honour the wishes of the father of the nation. To that effect, I am happy that both houses of Parliament passed the Citizenship Amendment Act to ensure Bapu's wishes come true," said the President.
Desk-thumping from the ruling party almost drowned out the words, forcing the President to pause. Then opposition members, wearing black bands, rose to their feet, shouting "shame".
As President Kovind addressed the joint sitting of parliament, customary at the start of the Budget session, the opposition expressed its protest by avoiding the front benches.
Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was the only opposition leader in the front row, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other top ministers also sat.
Congress president Sonia Gandhi sat at the back in solidarity with the protesting opposition MPs.
As he began his speech, which sums up the government's agenda and policies, President Kovind said: "The mandate my government has been given is one to create a 'New India'. That is what my government has set out to do."
Amid protests against the citizenship law, the President said: "Violence in the name of protests weakens country, government believes debate strengthens democracy."
"Before being anything else, we are first a citizen of India, and our duty of being a citizen of this nation comes above all else, including out personal beliefs and wants," he said.
The ruling coalition members also thumped their desks to the reference to the move to end special status to Jammu and Kashmir.
"2019 saw some landmark decisions. Parliament's decision on Jammu and Kashmir was one of them. I congratulate the people of both union territories - J&K and Ladakh. They will now benefit from all that the rest of the country benefits from. The pace at which development activity will take place in the two union territories will also increase significantly," said the President.