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Muslims flee Indian business hub after religious clashes, attacks

FILE PHOTO: A police officer sits outside a mosque that was attacked by a mob, in Gurugram

By Rupam Jain and Sakshi Dayal

GURUGRAM, India (Reuters) - Over 3,000 poor Muslims have fled a business hub outside New Delhi this month, fearing for their lives after Hindu-Muslim clashes and sporadic attacks targeting them, residents, police and a community group said.

Shops and shacks owned or run by Muslims and their houses in two large slum areas were padlocked when Reuters visited them more than a week after seven people were killed in clashes in Nuh and Gurugram districts in Haryana state, adjoining the Indian capital.

The violence began on July 31 after a Hindu religious procession, organised by groups ideologically aligned with the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was targeted and a mosque attacked in retaliation. Police quelled the unrest in 48 hours.

But minor attacks targeting Muslims have continued for days, scaring families who had moved to the new urban centre of Gurugram - where 250 of the Fortune 500 companies have offices - in search of a livelihood.

Stone-throwing, arson and vandalisation of two small Muslim shrines in the slum districts forced hundreds of Muslim families to abandon their single-room houses and seek shelter at a train station before heading out, witnesses said.

"Many of us spent the entire night on a railway platform because it was much safer there," Raufullah Javed, a tailor who fled to his home village in the eastern state of Bihar, told Reuters by phone.

The Gurugram president of Jamiat-Ulema-e-Hind (Council of Indian Muslim Theologians) Mufti Mohammed Salim estimated that more than 3,000 Muslims had left the district after the violence.

Four Muslim shopkeepers who also fled to their villages in eastern India said by phone that members of hardline Hindu groups had questioned them about their businesses and families.

"Some Hindu men came in a large group and started asking questions such as how much money I earn," said Shahid Sheikh, a barber who fled from Tigra village, home to over 1,200 Muslim families.

"Many Muslims decided it's best to leave for a while," said Sheikh, adding that some Hindu owners of shops rented out to Muslims wanted them to vacate.

Tensions between India's majority Hindus and minority Muslims have risen over issues such as the eating of beef and inter-faith marriages with Muslims saying they have been increasingly targeted by Hindu activists since Prime Minister Narendra Modi's BJP government took power in 2014.

BJP leaders say clashes between the two communities have broken out in the past as well and have been less frequent since they came to power.

The trouble in Gurugram, a city of over 1.5 million people formerly known as Gurgaon, has exposed multinationals such as Google, American Express, Dell, Samsung, Ernst & Young and Deloitte based there to risks of violence and disruption.

Haryana police said they had arrested over 200 men from both communities in connection with the violence and some Muslims who had fled had begun to trickle back.

Anil Vij, the interior minister of Haryana's BJP government, said he had received reports of some Muslims leaving but the situation is completely under control now.

"No one is asking them to leave and we are providing full security in all communally sensitive areas," he told Reuters.

(Reporting by Rupam Jain and Sakshi Dayal; Editing by YP Rajesh and Angus MacSwan)