Patrick Sawer, Claire Duffin and Robert Mendick
Patrick Sawer, Claire Duffin and Robert Mendick
The full story of 'Comrade Bala' and the women of the south London Maoist cult he held in his thrall can now be told
December 1, 2013
They were the brightest of girls with the brightest of futures. But for three decades, the women allegedly lived in the fearful, dark shadows.
They were, according to police, the victims of terrible psychological and physical abuse; effectively kept as slaves and held against their will as members of an extremist, political cult.
The Telegraph can now piece together how Aravindan Balakrishnan – a disciple of Chairman Mao, the late Chinese communist leader, and known as Comrade Bala to his devotees – ran a community so secret that nobody realised that three women, apparently free to come and go at will, were apparently shackled in all that time to their mercurial leader by “invisible handcuffs”.
Josephine Herivel, now aged 57, was one of those women. She was a brilliant young violinist, whose eminent father had been instrumental in breaking the Nazi’s Enigma wartime code at Bletchley Park.
But Miss Herivel became cut off from her family in the mid-1970s some time after arriving in London from her native Belfast, where her father was a lecturer at Queen’s University. By the time he died, two years ago, she had been left out of the family will while his obituaries made mention of just two daughters, not three.
Aishah Wahab, 69, also had a glittering career ahead. She had come to London from her native Malaysia as long ago as 1967 after winning a scholarship to study in London. She, too, apparently fell under Comrade Bala’s spell and rapidly lost touch with her family.
The third woman apparently rescued by police and anti-slavery charity workers is Rosie Davies. She is 30, half the age of the other two. It is not clear who her father is but she spent her life under the spell of the Maoist cult. Her mother, Sian Davies, had been educated first at Cheltenham Ladies College before obtaining a law degree. Sian was a postgraduate student at the LSE when she, too, first encountered Comrade Bala.
When Rosie was just 14, her mother died in mysterious circumstances, as the result of a fall from a second floor bathroom window on Christmas Eve 1996. She was living at one of the commune’s houses, owned by the local council, in Herne Hill, south London.
For seven months, Sian Davies lay in a coma at a London hospital. Yet when her family inquired as to her whereabouts, they were told Sian had gone travelling in to India but that she sent her love. When she died of her injuries, the authorities never bothered to inquire about her daughter, Rosie, left behind.
Comrade Bala appears to be the charismatic force that kept the commune together, long after the revolutionary fervour of the 1960s and 1970s had died away.
Now aged 73, he was arrested and subsequently bailed on suspicion of being involved in forced labour and slavery following the joint investigation by the Metropolitan Police and an anti-slavery group, Freedom Charity. Balakrishnan’s wife Chanda, 67, was also arrested and bailed.
Police had been called in after a tip-off to the charity. It is thought Miss Herivel had made the telephone call that was to trigger the ensuing furore.
Until two weeks ago, Balakrishnan had gone largely unnoticed for years. He had come to Britain in 1963 at the age of 23 on a British Council scholarship from Singapore and enrolled at the LSE, where Ralph Miliband – father of Ed Miliband, the Labour Party leader – and then darling of British socialism, was star lecturer.
The LSE was the place to be for the far left and Balakrishnan threw himself into the scene almost immediately, becoming involved in Communist protest groups, reacting to the 'oppressive’ governments back in south-east Asia.
Revolution was in the air and Balakrishnan was beating the Chairman Mao drum. Conferences would begin with a clenched fist salute to the Chinese revolutionary leader.
“Balakrishnan was charismatic and dominant,” recalled David Vipond, a communist at the time who met Balakrishnan at meetings, “There was money, they [the leadership] ate well. Balakrishnan did not see himself as being one of the 'plebs’. He saw himself as a big shot.”
From its foundation in 1968, Balakrishnan was a senior member in the Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist) and already was demonstrating “cultish” behaviour. Mr Vipond told The Telegraph: “We were made to feel as though we were not up to scratch. We only had three to four hours sleep a night, but if you missed a meeting, and said 'I’m knackered, I overslept’ it was because of your bourgeois, imperialist state of mind.
“That is how they kept people down, so you could not leave. They told you that you were following your self interest and letting down the people.”
In October 1971, Balakrishnan married his comrade in the struggle, Chanda Pattni, a 25-year-old Tanzanian history student of Indian origin whom he had met in London. The couple set up home first in north London before moving south of the river a year later.
They established up a bookshop in Brixton called The Workers’ Institute of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Tsetung Thought. It was unmissable, even among the four far-left bookshops Brixton then boasted, with its windows covered in Chinese Communist flags and the inside with giant Mao posters, one of them 20ft high.
Comrade Bala and his followers would parade up and down with their Mao red books and Mao badges; even going to the market for food was a “political act”.
In 1974, Balakrishnan was expelled from the Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist) for breaching party discipline for “splittist activities” – In other words, Balakrishnan wanted to go his own way. In return, he published a leaflet through his Workers’ Institute labelling his old party “fascists”.
It may have been little wonder they split. By now, Balakrishnan was preaching to his hundred or so followers that the Chinese Liberation Army was going to invade the “capitalist imperialist West” and bring a peasants’ revolution.
The job of his followers was to get ready for it, and manning the bookshop was the main method of preparation. The forces of the West were everywhere. When a fire engine drove past a visitor to the bookshop was told it was evidence of “psychological warfare”. “The sirens weren’t even on,” a visitor, then a teenager but now in his mid-50s, told The Sunday Telegraph.
Sian Davies is thought to have come on the scene in 1973. She had a boyfriend at the time but – increasingly drawn into the world of the Maoist commune – she withdrew from both him and her family. Eventually, having graduated from LSE in 1975, there was virtually no contact at all.
Miss Wahab was already thought to be a member of the group by then. Last week, her sister, Kamar Mahtum, 73, saw her for the first time at a secret meeting arranged by police and charity workers. Mrs Mahtum, who had flown to London from Malaysia for the highly charged reunion, had not seen her sister since 1967. They kept in touch at first but within a few years all letters home had dried up. The revolutionary commune had led Miss Wahab to cut all ties.
Josephine Herivel – known as Josie – had, like the other two women, come to London to study but soon disappeared into Balakrishnan’s paranoid and delusional world, cut off from reality. She had won the last of her prizes for her musicianship in her native Belfast in 1974 but soon after broke off contact with her family.
When the Queen came to Brixton for her Silver Jubilee celebrations in 1977, the route went past the bookshop; the crowds cheered outside, but the Maoists stayed inside, clutching their Red Books.
The same year, the Singaporean authorities claimed that Balakrishnan and others, many of them former Singaporean students he had associated with in London, were plotting to overthrow Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s leader. Balakrishnan was stripped of his citizenship, which means it will now be impossible to deport him there. It is not known if he has a passport for any other country.
During the 1970s, Balakrishnan and his wife had been arrested eight times for a variety of offences. He and his associates were also jailed. On one occasion in 1976, two “comrades”, a Malaysian engineering graduate and the other a Tube worker from Barbados, were sentenced to 12 months’ in Brixton jail for assaulting prison officers as they visited Balakrishnan in Brixton prison. Why he was there was not known, but their cause was not helped by their chants of “long live Chairman Mao” from the dock.
A raid in 1978 was a turning point however. The bookshop was shut down; authorities had had enough. The group disintegrated, several of them deported.
“I did wonder what had happened to them when they suddenly disappeared at the end of the 70s,” recalled Paul Flewers, 58, a member at the time of a rival Left-wing grouping. “I suspect that after the police raided the bookshop several of them were deported as illegal aliens and Balakrishnan decided they had to go undercover.”
Mr Flewers added: "The rest of the left treated them as a joke. We'd come across them handing out Mao leaflet in Brixton town centre and have a good laugh because they were so insane - they were politically certifiable, talking about peasant revolution in a country like Britain."
While others may have left, the three women stuck with Balakrishnan. The Telegraph has established this because in September 1978 Miss Herivel, Miss Wahab and Miss Davies – and three other women – went on trial at Inner London Crown Court accused of obstructing and assaulting the police.
They each faced 13 charges and all were found guilty but given conditional discharges, except Miss Davies, whose 14 days in prison on remand cancelled out her jail sentence.
The end of the court case marked a change in tone. Comrade Bala and his followers largely disappeared into the shadows, popping up to publish a fresh defence of Mao in 1984, just as China’s leaders turned towards capitalism.
Rose Davies had been born a year earlier but it was to be a strange childhood in a “commune” made up of her mother, Balakrishnan, who may or may not be her father, his wife, and the two other women.
Despite her birth being registered officially, she was, it appears, never sent to school, and even as the group moved from house to house nobody seemed to ask why she was not being educated.
For the next 13 years or so, little is known about the group. There are reports a concerned neighbour contacted Lambeth council over the teenage girl who had never gone to school. Then, Balakrishnan’s world exploded again when Miss Davies fell out of an upstairs bathroom window at the council-owned house where the collective was living, suffering a broken neck. She was 44 at the time.
Seven months later she died at King’s College Hospital, in Lambeth, with her family told by Balakrishnan or his followers that she was “travelling in India” and sent her love.
At the inquest into her death, Selena Lynch, the coroner for Southwark, strongly criticised the remaining members of the collective, saying that she could not understand how Miss Davies had come to fall out of the window.
She said: “I wanted to call everyone in the house as we had a mystery, there’s no other way of describing it. I still find it hard to know how she fell out of the window, indeed what was she doing opening the window at that cold time of year.”
At the hearing, the other members of the group who gave evidence all claimed that Miss Davies had fallen while taking a bath and claimed she had pleaded with them not to tell her family about the accident in order not to upset them.
Television footage of Balakrishnan and the women taken during an ITN news documentary on Miss Davies’s death give us the only images of the group.
For the next 14 years, they disappeared again until the extraordinary events sparked by Miss Herivel’s plaintive cry for help.
But even now it’s not clear just what’s gone on. Nor what even the crime, or crimes, might be.
Miss Wahab’s sister has been able to give the world only the merest glimpse of life behind closed doors, most latterly at 1C Peckford Place in Brixton, the commune’s most recent address.
After her meeting with her sister, Mrs Mahtum told The Telegraph that her sister appeared in good spirits. They spoke in English rather than Malay and Miss Wahab did not discuss the conditions in which she and the other rescued women had been living, nor their alleged captors. “When I asked her about what had gone on she just clammed up,” said Mrs Mahtum, “The only thing she wanted me to perceive is that she is happy. She told me: 'I have got friends here, I work here. I do important work here’, but she could not reveal what she did.
“Each time she said something that made me smile she would say: 'Oh, I love your smile. Don’t frown, laugh, smile.”
Mrs Mahtum said her instinct had been to reach out and help her little sister, but Miss Wahab insisted she had never been lonely in London and had people who looked out for her. “Aishah said, 'I’ve got enough’, 'my friends feed me’, 'my friends love me, I love them, they help me out’.”
Mrs Mahtum added: “When she said that I felt that she was trying to tell me … that even without us, she can survive, as she has been for the last 40 years. We’re nothing that important. I felt a lot of disappointment.”
The other two women will presumably be having meetings with their families too. What they tell them and police will have a bearing, it is clear, on what course the police investigation now takes. Comrade Bala held the women under his thrall for three decades and more. It was a spell only broken – after many missed opportunities – by the intervention of the authorities he hated.