There are sometimes great Mauritian heroes that die unsung. Gianduth Khaytoo, known as Ramesh Khaytoo, Lalit founder-member and activist, passed away on 29 November, after a stroke. He was one of these great heroes, a real “Working Class Hero”, to quote John Lennon’s song title, and his reputation, in fact, went well beyond his village, Bambous. This obituary is to formalize some of the memory, some of the legacy, that this unsung hero leaves us, by committing his memory to the writing.
The immense contribution of Ramesh Khaytoo was his conceptualizing and organizing of an unusual and powerful grass-roots strike in 1970, and also his creation of a new way of seeing and actually organizing work itself in the fields, an idea that became a reality called “sistem nuvo” in 1971. So, when he joined Lalit de Klas as a founder member in 1976, he brought with him these two fantastic experiences, this vital knowledge and wisdom, this immense richness into LALIT. So, let’s give a brief outline of these two key struggles that he led before founding LALIT.
The 1970 strike was a rolling strike. It was a protest against a problem at the Médine sugar Estate. There was a kolom who extracted sexual acts from women labourers, by isolating them, with the collusion of a sirdar, then raping them, one by one. This kind of abuse was common then, as it unfortunately is until today. Women labourers were furious. Men labourers, as they found out, began to get angry. Then, one day the kolom organized for a young girl worker of 12 to be his prey. These were the days when there were still “chokra-chokri”, children, in the fields. So, the rape was of a child.
But how do you set about organizing a strike in the middle of a State of Emergency? How do you organize it without losing your job, getting arrested, being set up for some criminal offense by the boss the very next day? Not easy. So, workers, under Ramesh’s leadership, planned and held a rolling strike, Annex by Annex, over the whole of Médine. On Monday, everyone working in the Palmir Annex went on strike, while the other seven Annexes worked away as though everything was hunky-dory. The next day, while the Palmir workers all arrived at work and worked, there was a total strike in the Yemen Annex. On Wednesday, the Palmir and Yemen workers were both back at work, but this time La Mecque labourers were all absent. It had a sharp effect on the bosses. They felt they were being attacked by a poltergeist. Tit-Albert, it seemed. They went catatonic. They could not get their heads around it. What could they do about it? They enquired around, and finally found out that there a serious sexual predator at work from amongst management itself. They sacked him. The strike had been a total success. No workers lost their jobs. No-one was set up. No-one arrested. This gave workers immense confidence in themselves. No sindikalist had been involved. They did it by themselves. Imagine the profound lakorite or “common understanding” that was necessary to plan and execute that kind of strike. Such was Ramesh Khaytoo’s capacity.
The next year, in 1971, Ramesh Khaytoo became the leader of a completely different movement, in another sugar estate, Anna. Workers organized themselves to do their piece-rate work collectively, instead of individually as they usually had been made to do it in the inter-crop season. They calculated the total work-load to be done, they all worked at a reasonable pace to complete it globally, and then requested that their pay be divided equally amongst them, no matter how much each had worked. All unhealthy competition between work-mates ended, weaker workers were no longer punished cruelly, and the atmosphere at work changed from one of drudgery to something pleasant. This involved creating total “lakorite”. No other way could workers have managed so brilliant a coup. They worked one full day. Loved it. And part of the second day.
But, the bosses would not accept it. Could not. How could labourers create something so important? What was the meaning of workers arranging how work is performed? Of workers making the site work well? Is this not a proof that the bosses are superfluous? Is this not the very seeds of the rebellion against capitalism?
I don’t know, but I do know that what actually happened was the Anna Sugar Estate bosses gave instructions for all the workers to stop work at once and go and wait in front of Anna offices. And they gave this order for three consecutive days. Then sacked every single worker on the Sugar Estate.
What argumentation did they use? The workers, they said, were absent without permission, and therefore on strike. The strike was illegal, they said.
The Labour Inspector was, of course, in collusion.
Police and their dogs were present on the day of the sackings.
So, the State backed the boss. Not only were all the workers sacked, but they were put on a secret boss’s list, so that none of them would ever again get work in the private sector.
Yet, the workers never regretted their “sistem nuvo”. They knew they had won something magnificent. They had held a revolution in the way work is organized, and they knew it. Even if they lost their livelihoods for it, it was worth it. Ramesh was the man who inspired the others, interpreted the events as they unfurled.
This sacking was chronicled in the Revi LALIT de Klas, and then became the basis for the best play ever written in Mauritius, Tras, by Henri Favory, which sees the events from the marathon Court Case that dragged on exposing all the details. The play is due out in a new bilingual edition in January, 2013.
So, when Ramesh set up LALIT together with other founder-members, this is some of the richness he brought with him. And there were other things, too. He brought a wealth of experience of struggles against the Labour Party from the 1960s, because he, like other LALIT members like Cadet Couyava and the late Suresh Ramsewak, was in the Independent Forward Block with the Bisoondoyal Brothers until he became an MMM delegate in about 1972 right in the middle of the repression. So, all this experience was brought into LALIT de KLAS, and later LALIT.
Ramesh also had a flair for countering communalism, not only on a village level, but also nationally. For example, when there was “counting” after MMM Central Committee elections, there was always one branch that did not vote for Aneerood Jugnauth, at the time he was President of the MMM. It was the Bambous Branch. Ramesh Khaytoo did not pardon him his time in the Hindu Congress party, and had the intellectual prowess to convince the entire brans that he should not get our vote.
Ramesh was also a founder-member, and one of the conceptualizers with Ram Seegobin, of perhaps the most advanced health co-operative ever set up anywhere in the world, the Bambous Health Project, which for 25 years organized preventive health, consultations, and home visits for a whole village, and even had an account in the Blood Bank, and ran open one-year courses in anatomy, physiology and pathology.
And it was Ramesh who in 1999 proposed to the LALIT Bambous Branch that women members go and visit Widow Veronique Topize who lived in Beau Songe with Kaya when he was killed in custody. He suggested we visit her to support her through horrendously difficult times. This proposal once again shows Ramesh’s remarkable capacity to create something new. His idea eventually led to an extra-ordinarily close link between the women’s movement and a widow. It also led to the process that created JUSTICE: Association Against Violence by Officers of the State that would bring together victims and survivors of mainly police violence to cry out against torture and violence against detainees.
A few years earlier, again it was Ramesh who proposed that women members of the Bambous LALIT Branch support a woman who was irrationally branded a “witch” and cruelly tortured by the agent of a well-known politician in No 14. This eventually gave the woman enough support so that she could continue living in the village, and give evidence in Court against the perpetrators.
Ramesh Khaytoo was also member, together with other planters who were in LALIT like Paul Duval and Ton Benoit, of the La Ferme Mixed Farming Co-operative. In this advanced co-operative, they created a way of equilibrating the value of manual work done by members against the value of a money contribution (for members who had jobs outside). And for years, they shared their expenses and income. It was perhaps the only genuine agricultural co-operative that Mauritius has known. It could not survive in its advanced form, being just one island in a sea of capitalism, however.
Ramesh also contributed creatively to LALIT electoral campaigning. He and another Bambous Branch member campaigned in No. 14 in a new way: they would take a pile of leaflets and LALIT programs in a bag, plus posters to paste up, a plastic bottle filled with concentrated flour glue and an empty bucket. They would catch a bus down the coast, and stop at villages, borrow water to mix their glue in their bucket, and begin to paste up posters. Soon villagers would crowd around, and it was in this way that they would hold impromptu meetings, and at the close of the meeting, distribute leaflets. All the while, enjoying themselves.
In the village of Bambous, there a countless families that knew that, when they were in difficulties, and, for example, were short of food, Ramesh and his wife, the late Pulo, always had a tin of rice to give away, and a cooked curry to share. Even when Ram and I would be late in getting home on our motorbike, our dog at the time, Mazor, knew that if he got hungry, all he had to do, was go up to Ramesh’s house, push open the front door with his paw, and go and scratch on his bedcovers. Then Ramesh would give him food, all the while talking to him. “Bann la an retar, Mazor? Vini, mo garson.”
So, when Ramesh Khaytoo has recently passed away, it is a moment to pay homage to a labourer who has made a huge contribution to the struggle for socialism. The fact that newspaper readers may not know Ramesh Khaytoo does not mean that his contribution does not already have a place in the collective memory. It does have. It is here. He has left his mark. Li finn kit enn tras. When the play, Tras, was first performed it went all over the country. To Port Louis in 4-5 different halls, Curepipe L’Hotel de Ville, and to villages all over: Surinam, Bambous, Black River, Pamplemousses, Mahebourg. So, Ramesh, when you think about it, is a well-known person. His mark has been made on Mauritian society as a whole. He is not as “unsung” a hero as all that.
So much confidence did workers and the very poor have in him, that he became the bridge between the exporters of luxury spice, wild red peppercorns (lagrin ruz or dipwav maron) and the gatherers of the peppercorns in the underclasses. This role, as a kind of middle-man blunted Ramesh’s very sharp class consciousness for a time. And during another period, he had an alcohol problem, which he got over, becoming a teetotaler. The past 10 or so years, he has not been in the best of health, but has continued to be active in LALIT until May Day 2012, and he was a regularly subscriber to Revi LALIT. The untimely death of his life-partner, Pulo, also affected him deeply.
LALIT expresses its deep condolences to all six of his children – Juna, Rishi, Gag, Fiya, Devina and Lolol – and to all his family and friends.
(Originally written in Kreol on www.lalitmauritius.org )