Everyday, after overseeing food orders to customers, 34-year-old Iqram Suliya steps out of his restaurant to offer afternoon prayers at a makeshift praying hall in the backyard.
Two years ago, Iqram left his native Palanpur district in Gujarat and came to Rajasthan to work at ‘Hotel New Jaipur’, one of the two dozen eateries set up exclusively by the Gujarati Muslims, along a small stretch of National Highway-8 that connects New Delhi to Mumbai.
In a politically supercharged developmental discourse, wherein Gujarat Chief Minister and BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi never misses an opportunity to highlight Rajasthan’s backwardness against Gujarat’s prosperity by citing mass labour migration from Rajasthan to Gujarat, these upper-middle class Muslim entrepreneurs from Gujarat migrating to Rajasthan symbolise a curious trend.
There are 23 such “highway hotels” along the small stretch between Bhankrota to Dudu on the Jaipur-Ajmer highway—all set up by the Muslims from Gujarat’s Banaskantha, Sabarkantha, Patan and Mehsana districts among others.
The trend started after the 2002 Hindu-Muslim riots in Godhra, Gujarat.
Hotel Jaipur, set up by Abdul Sattar from Palanpur in 2003, was the first such establishment to come up along this stretch of NH-8, sparking off a trend that attracted other enterprising Muslim businessmen to this part of Rajasthan.
“Why we came here and why others continue to do so is not so much about money but the level of the Hindu-Muslim unity and harmony here...it is not there in Gujarat anymore...I think its because of the simplicity of the people of this State...that kind of atmosphere makes this place better to work,” says Junaid Jagrala, manager at the Hotel Jaipur.
According to Amin Khan of the New Patel hotel, there are 44 such establishments in Rajasthan, set up at various points in time over the last decade. Did the riots of 2002 have a role to play in these Muslim entrepreneurs moving to Rajasthan?
“No, just business...we do business everywhere...all over the country...so there is no special reason to come here,” says Amin.
While most owners here shy away from questions on Narendra Modi, there are some that speak their mind about Gujarat’s developmental success story under the Chief Ministership of Mr. Modi.
“Gujarat has always been a sone ki chiriya (golden bird)...even now it is but only for some people...people in Gujarat, at least the Muslims, are not happy with Mr. Modi after the riots...if he becomes Prime Minister, the rest of the country will also be like Gujarat,” he says.
Hotel Western, Hotel Aroma, Hotel New Patel, Hotel Jaipur-eateries-cum-guest houses with an all vegetarian menu and neutral, “secular” names, as one hotel owner puts it.
“People don’t like vegetarian and non-vegetarian food being cooked in the same space so we have kept the menu completely vegetarian. Besides, everyone eats vegetarian, even the meat eaters but not vice versa,” says Iqram.
With names written in Hindi, English and Gujarati, all these “highway hotels” have small makeshift prayer halls in their backyards for the employees to offer namaaz.
The hotels run on a partnership model since their owners, adherents of Islam, do not believe in earning interest and profiting from their businesses.
“The staff are partners too...some put in big money, some put in small amounts but they are all partners...we believe if the luck of even one of us is strong, it will shine on all of us collectively,” says Junaid.
But why “highway hotels”?
“That’s because we are HMT people...Hotels (running highway hotels here and elsewhere), Motors (operating taxis in Mumbai) and Tabela (running buffalo sheds)...have traditionally been our areas of expertise,” he says with a hearty laugh.