Comrade Bala's inexplicable hold: From Singaporean student to Maoist cult leader

Aravindan Balakrishnan (left) arriving at Southwark Crown Court in London on Nov 11, 2015.
Aravindan Balakrishnan (left) arriving at Southwark Crown Court in London on Nov 11, 2015.PHOTO: REUTERS

How did a 'weedy little man' manage to trap three women like flies in a spider's web?

This story first appeared in the Sunday Times print edition under the headline "The inexplicable hold of  'Comrade Bala'" on Dec 8, 2013.


When Aravindan Balakrishnan left Singapore to study in Britain in 1963, he landed in the socialist hotbed that was the London School of Economics (LSE).

He embraced the cause wholeheartedly, championing social equality, railing against capitalism and calling for the abolition of personal and property rights. There was scant inkling then that he would go on to take some of these notions to the extreme, long after the collapse of communism in 1989.

Today, Balakrishnan, 73, is accused of holding three women captive for more than three decades in a house he shared with his wife and alleged conspirator Chanda Pattni, 67.

The women – Ms Siti Aishah Abdul Wahab, 69, Ms Josephine Herivel, 57, and Ms Rosie Davies, 30 – were rescued on Oct 25 after one of them called a charity hotline for help.

Perhaps the household did begin life in the 1970s as a genuine leftist commune that the two older women joined freely. But from the police account of emotional control and physical beatings the women endured, it appears there was a much darker, abusive side to Balakrishnan.

These traits first surfaced in 1968, when he became a senior member of the Communist Party of England (Marxist-Leninist), two years after Mao Zedong unleashed the Cultural Revolution on China. The party leadership regularly denigrated members for putting individual needs above those of the collective.

Mr David Vipond, a former communist who knew Balakrishnan, told the Daily Telegraph that members were often accused of having a "bourgeois, imperialist state of mind" if they complained of tiredness. "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," he said. 

But Balakrishnan's domineering nature came to alienate him even from his comrades. He formed a divisive clique within the party which culminated in his and his followers' expulsion in 1974. Ironically, the committee that expelled him noted that he had "insinuated that all other comrades in the party were just mindless slaves who ran around at the 'flick of the national secretary's finger'". Clearly he believed he was above servitude.

"Comrade Bala" then formed his own party with 25 members, called the Workers' Institute of Marxism-Leninism Mao Zedong Thought. He and his wife Chanda, who was a 25-year-old Tanzanian history student of Indian origin when they married in 1971, set up a bookshop in Brixton, south London. It was draped in Chinese Communist flags and had giant posters of Chairman Mao.

Even in a neighbourhood then rife with myriad leftists groups, the Workers' Institute was considered fringe, its members subjects of ridicule, with their Mao badges and proclamations that China's Red Army would liberate Brixton from the fascist state.

 

Mr Paul Flewers, a historian and at the time a member of the Revolutionary Communist Party, told The Guardian newspaper: "In comparison to the rest of us, they were like a strange sect."

The group's antics reportedly inspired a popular sitcom in 1977: Citizen Smith. Its main character, Wolfie Smith, leader of the Tooting Popular Front, was fond of pumping his fist in the air and shouting: "Power to the people!"

Far-right circles go further, claiming that Comrade Bala was thuggish, part of a leftist mob in 1973 that punched and kicked a professor so badly he had to be hospitalised.

Professor Steve Rayner, an academic at Oxford University who studied Comrade Bala's group for his doctorate thesis in 1979, told The Guardian it was "cult-like", with little debate and all income donated to the organisation. Its leader had a "superior ability to manipulate" other members, who were mainly from overseas and appeared vulnerable.

Comrade Bala, Prof Rayner noted, had the charisma of a guru.

The group's overt Maoist activities ceased in 1978, after the police shut down the Brixton bookshop and Balakrishnan and his followers had been arrested several times for various offences, including attacking a police officer. He was stripped of his Singapore citizenship in 1977 after his communist activities came to light.

The Workers' Institute disbanded, save for a handful of loyalists, including Ms Siti Aishah, a Malaysian, and Ms Herivel.

Many questions remain as to their lives in the following years, in particular that of the youngest woman freed. Ms Davies, who was born in 1983, is said to have spent her entire life in the commune, and never attended school.

It is not clear who is her father. Her mother Sian Davies was one of Comrade Bala's followers. In 1996, she fell from the bathroom window of the south London house where the group then lived. She died from her injuries seven months later, at the age of 44.

At the inquest into her death, her family members said they were told by other residents in the house that Ms Sian Davies was in India, when she was in a hospital all that time. The coroner recorded an open verdict.

Her cousin Eleri Morgan, a retired teacher in London, recalled that Ms Sian Davies cut off almost all family ties as soon as she joined the commune. At the inquest, Ms Morgan finally came face to face with Balakrishnan. "I thought, what a weedy little man," she told The New York Times. 'He was short, toothless – he had no upper teeth – and wore thick glasses that came down on his nose. I couldn't understand how anyone could follow this man."

It is a mystery that the police are slowly unravelling as they question the rescued women, who are in safe houses and receiving treatment from trauma experts.

Reports suggest that the women were initially reluctant to incriminate Balakrishnan and his wife when they were rescued.

It is not known whether the police will be able to gather enough evidence to press charges next month, when Balakrishnan and his wife are due back in court.

Clearly, Comrade Bala had a hold on some of his followers. One of the women, The Guardian reported, had once confided to a neighbour that she felt "trapped like a fly in a spider's web".

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