Dec 4, 2015

The Brixton sect where paranoia and cruelty reigned

The Guardian
Robert Booth
December 4, 2015

In late 1979 a Brixton-based Maoist revolutionary calling himself Comrade Bala staged public meetings in central London announcing that China was poised to take over the world.

Aravindan Balakrishnan’s event flyers bore the hallmarks of the loonier parts of the leftwing fringe, fighting the rise of Margaret Thatcher, who had recently become prime minister, and Ronald Reagan, who was on course for the White House.

Cranked out in red ink on a secondhand printing press, they featured a portrait of Chairman Mao in his worker’s cap and heralded “the international dictatorship of the proletariat”. They claimed China was using covert electronic and satellite warfare to advance towards global domination.

It was “a very, very bizarre group, even for someone interested in Maoism”, recalled one communist activist who met Bala.

But there was no clue that Balakrishnan’s Workers’ Institute of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought had already become a secretive criminal cult. Nor that he was sexually and physically abusing female members, seizing their wages, and making them cook and clean for him while bullying, threatening and preventing them from leaving with the use of mental and physical coercion. One of his flyers advertised a seminar on “women’s liberation as an integral part of proletarian revolution”. Back at his “revolutionary base” in Brixton, he was waging a campaign of misogynistic violence against his female followers.

The story of Balakrishnan’s extraordinary crimes first surfaced in autumn 2013 when three women who had been inside his Maoist cult for decades, including Balakrishnan’s 30-year-old daughter, plucked up the courage to flee. Police said they had “never seen anything of this magnitude before”.

The full horror of what his followers went through just a couple of miles from central London has been laid out over the last three weeks in a trial that ended with Balakrishnan’s conviction for rape, sexual assault, child cruelty, assault and false imprisonment relating to three women stretching from 1976 to 2013.

It began in 1963 when Balakrishnan arrived in Britain to study. Born in Kerala, India, he moved to Singapore aged eight, which was the first time he met his father, who had gone there to work. He went to university in the British colony and had a political awakening. It was the time of the Malayan emergency and rebels were fighting “an anti-British national liberation war”.

The “cruelty, killing, torturing [and] arresting” by the British radicalised Balakrishnan. Once at the London School of Economics his agitation took off. He led the Malaysian and Singaporean socialist and communist students. A friend recalled his good sense of humour and openness, but then things changed.

He developed a “grand self-delusion that he was a great revolutionary leader and he began to expose his extreme megalomanic, control freak and authoritarian characteristics”, said Stephen Chang, a close political ally of Balakrishnan in London from 1969 to 1971. His leadership of the students soured as what Chang described as Balakrishnan’s “pathological need to control and dominate others” grew.

Balakrishan’s associates included Malcolm Caldwell, a Marxist Labour party member and supporter of the genocidal Cambodian dictator Pol Pot.

“He went from being a political radical to something more personal about allegiance,” said Amir Dastan, 74, another Malaysian who was in London with Balakrishnan. “Whatever the leader said, it was the truth and the whole truth. He was quite unstable, but when he was condemning somebody and shouting and screaming he would contextualise it as a political thing.”

Balakrishnan retreated to his newly formed Maoist Workers’ Institute, which took on the aspect of a millenarian cult, preparing for communist China to take charge of the world. He promised true believers immortality and threatened doubters they would come to harm. His political centre at 140 Acre Lane in Brixton, which opened in 1976, displayed a huge portrait of Mao. Tracts by Mao, Lenin and Marx published in China were sold for pennies.

“I was struck by how incredibly paranoid he was,” a man who attended the Workers’ Institute in the mid-1970s told the Guardian, requesting anonymity. “I was in the bookshop with him when a fire engine went past. Brixton fire station was not far away, but he was convinced it was psychological warfare and that it was the fascist state out to get them.”

Over time, his male supporters drifted away or were ostracised and he surrounded himself with “a cadre of women soldiers who could withstand the sugar-coated bullets of bourgeois culture”.

They included his wife, Chanda, from Tanzania; Josephine Herivel, a talented Royal College of Music violinist from Ireland whose father had worked with Alan Turing at Bletchley Park; Aisha Wahab, a Malaysian student; Sian Davies, a Welsh activist whose money he used to lease the shop, and two others who cannot be named for legal reasons . Two would die in the cult: Davies fell from a window in 1996, while in 2001 another member, Oh Kareng, “hit her head on a kitchen cabinet and fell unconscious and died”, the court heard.

Joining the cult was “like taking a nun’s vows” said one member, who smashed her bottle of Estée Lauder perfume with a hammer to remove any trace of bourgeois temptation.

Some were sent to work to fund the collective, one as a nurse, another as a trade union official. After work, there were shifts in the bookshop, cooking, listening to Comrade Bala talk about politics until after midnight, then cleaning up. The leader would hit the women if they nodded off, the court heard. While they worked, he spent days in his room reading.

The Workers’ Institute was so peculiar it drew the attention of anthropologists. A 1979 UCL doctoral study by Dr Stephen Rayner reported: “The Workers’ Institute claims an absolute monopoly of truth as the only correct upholder of the line of the Communist party of China.” Balakrishnan filled members’ time to prevent anyone gaining experience or knowledge that might allow them to challenge his leadership, Rayner concluded.

Paranoia, not camaraderie, reigned. Bala insisted members inform on each other and that cooking should be done in pairs to avoid poisoning. He was routinely and viciously violent to several of the women, the court heard, but human suffering seemed to mean little to him. He once said he wished 3 million, not 3,000 people had been massacred at Tiananmen Square in 1989. He predicted that one day 7 billion people were going to be blown up and said: “I’m going to replace them with a billion who are like robots.”

Although he was married, Balakrishnan repeatedly had sex with three of the other women in the commune. He told them to write diaries about their sexual histories, which he said was to help cleanse them. But then he would humiliate them by reading out entries to the others.

“It is like he takes a wire brush to your brain,” one victim said. “There is no element of your self that he has left unexplored and that isn’t open at all times to being humiliated and criticised.”

A baby came of his sexual relationship with Sian Davies but bizarrely nobody knew she was pregnant until her waters broke. Balakrishnan claimed it was a result of “electronic warfare”, something he still believes is happening. He believes the Chinese Communist party controls an “electronic satellite warfare machine” called Jackie, which he has linked to global events ranging from the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader to the downing of the Challenger space shuttle. He told his six-year-old daughter he had survived being zapped by a death ray fired from a London taxi meter controlled by Chairman Mao.

His child would grow up being told that her parents were both dead, a story that suited Balakrishnan’s belief in shattering the nuclear family. She was brought up to believe that Comrade Bala was godlike.

As well as the mental cruelty, he beat her on her body and face, sometimes with a slipper, sometimes with a ruler. “My earliest memories were of fear,” she told the court.

When he was asked by the prosecuting barrister, Rosina Cottage QC, if he felt any responsibility for the post-traumatic stress disorder his daughter now suffers, Balakrishnan replied, with a wave of his hand, that the child he had kept secret for 30 years was “a liar” and “a fantasist capable of creating trauma”. The jury did not agree.

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