When V TPrasad, a reporter, came across the story of a nearly-destitute widowed mother of two, Aleema, he thought it made a good human interest news feature. His article made it to the front page of Karavali Ale (Coastal Wave), a popular daily in the coastal town of Mangalore in southern Indian Karnataka state.

Calls poured in from readers with offers of help. Prasad and his friends also pitched in to procure some construction material to rebuild the dilapidated house in which she lived.

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On the morning of November 27, when Prasad was attending a function in nearby Kolladu village he was attacked by a mob. An audio recording of the incident reveals that the attackers, while assaulting Prasad, shouted repeatedly: "She belongs to our community... We will look after her... Why are you bothered about her...” Prasad kept pleading: "I did not give her any money... I only wrote a story... Other people helped..."

The mob beat him with sticks and stones and left him unconscious. Prasad recovered the next day in a Mangalore hospital. In his statement, he named several members of the Muslim organisation Popular Front of India (PFI).

V T Prasad was thrashed until he fell unconscious by a mob, none of whom has been arrested so far [Dayanand Kukkaje/Al Jazeera]

Several others involved in illegal sand mining and illegal timber trade – about which he had written extensively in Karavali Ale – were part of the mob, he said. Photographs of the incident, captured by an onlooker Ashraf, substantiate Prasad's statement.

The PFI however denies any role in the attack and claims it was "public anger" against the journalist for his alleged "attempt to rape" Aleema's daughter.

People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) state president P B D'Sa said the assault on Prasad is yet another case of vigilante attack in the communally divided environment of coastal Karnataka. The rape charge, he believed, was "cooked up".

Attacks on buses

On the very same day, a Hindu man accompanying a Muslim woman on a bus was attacked at Hampankatta bus stand in Mangalore. The girl was whisked away. Nobody in Mangalore, including journalists, were surprised as it is an "everyday occurrence". The police denied the incident.

Although the PFI initially emerged as a moderate voice of the Muslim community and stood up against the rabid Hindu political outfits over the last decade, many say that it has fast degenerated into the very monster it was fighting.

Naveen Soorinje, a television journalist in Mangalore, who has exposed several attacks by extremist Hindu groups, describes PFI as the "RSS of the Muslims". (RSS, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, is the ideological parent of the Hindu nationalists).

Organisations such as the Karnataka Communal Harmony Forum, who have been vocal against the extremist Hindu groups, are at their wit's end when it comes to dealing with PFI's "minority fundamentalism". After the attack on Prasad, they appear convinced that PFI is "no different".

B V Seetharam, editor of Karavali Ale, said: "It is a tit-for-tat situation. They are doing what the Hindutva forces did."

It is a tit-for-tat situation. They are doing what the Hindutva forces did.

B V Seetharam, Editor, Karavali Ale

Hindu groups, meanwhile, have started to spread rumours that young Muslim men have been trained to seduce Hindu girls and convert them. This secret operation, they claim, is called "Love Jihad".

Two investigations – one by the Karnataka state police and another by the neighbouring Kerala state police – have concluded there is no proof to confirm the "Love Jihad" conspiracy theory. Yet, Hindu nationalist politicians and activists alike freely use the phrase and use it to fan communal frenzy.

Girls and boys of different religions are not allowed to interact in their day-to-day life. Two perfect strangers sitting next to each other on a public transport bus cannot even by chance be a Hindu girl and Muslim boy.

If they are, they are pulled out, admonished if lucky and beaten if defiant. In cases where the boy and girl are friends, they are handed over to the police after the customary beating. The police invariably summon the parents of the girl and warn the boy to stay away from her.

The moral policing extends beyond 'love jihad'. Fashion shows have been disrupted on the grounds that the "skimpy" clothes women wear go against Hindu culture. On Valentine's Day, mobs seek out and admonish young men and women hanging out together.

On Jan 24, 2009, 'Amnesia', a lounge bar in Mangalore city was attacked. Young men and women who were partying inside were thrashed in full view of television cameras. A similar fate awaited a birthday party at 'Morning Mist', a resort, on the outskirts of Mangalore on July 28, 2012.

The most common cause for an attack is inter-religious romance, love, friendship or even the possibility of it, between a Hindu girl and a Muslim boy. While this was not imposed actively some years ago, it has come to be the unwritten social code. Hundreds of young men and women have been humiliated or assaulted or both in full public view.

Divide deeper than political

Although the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was routed in the 2013 elections to the Karnataka State Assembly, the roots of the Hindutva ideology appear deep in local society.

The new Congress-led government has made no difference in preventing the attacks, much less in rebuilding burnt bridges between the two communities.

The one statement of significance by state chief minister Siddaramaiah on June 13 this year warned of action against those involved in "moral policing" by vigilante groups.

He said that the jurisdictional police officer would be held responsible for any incident. The result: the police refuse to acknowledge any attack, lest the responsibility falls on their shoulders. That was precisely what happened in the Hampankatta bus stand case.

In fact, within days of the chief minister's statement, the Hindutva activists reasserted their presence.

On June 19 in Sullia town near Mangalore, they stopped a car in which two Muslim men and two Hindu women were travelling towards Kasargod, a town in the adjoining state of Kerala. They were beaten and taken to the police station.

There were other such attacks. The very next day at Iddya village, Shiabuddin was attacked by a five-member gang when he was speaking to a Hindu woman in his car. On July 7, in Chitrapur, employees of a call centre, who were setting out on a weekend holiday, were attacked.

Youngsters celebrating a birthday party in Morning Mist,, a resort, were attacked [Dayanand Kukkaje/Al Jazeera]

On September 20 in Mangalore, five men belonging to a Hindutva outfit attacked Orbis Business Management, a small-scale software outsourcing firm. Reason: women were working late hours with their male colleagues. They beat up a male employee and broke the glass panes. The police are yet to arrest the prime accused.

Orbis lost 12 out of its 25 employees in the next one month. Four out of five women in the organisation quit.

Rajesh P, head of Orbis, said: "It is difficult to recruit, train and retain employees in this sector. And when there is an attack like this, employees feel scared, especially women." In the same breath, he asked: "They know that I am a Hindu who owns this company. How could Hindus attack a Hindu company?"

"You can understand when Hindus attack Muslims. Muslims also attack Hindus. I am not against Muslims. My manager is a Muslim," he said.

In a bizarre twist, with the "undependable police" unable to provide protection, Rajesh floated a Hindu youth organisation, Akhila Bharath Hindu Yuvaksabha, and became its district president. This, he believes, will offer his business immunity from further attacks.

With parliamentary elections scheduled for early 2014, the communal divide in coastal Karnataka is likely to be exploited by all parties to win votes. What is however more scary is that while religious extremists continue to gain the upper hand, democratic spaces are shrinking at an alarming rate.

Source: Al Jazeera