By Tan Wah Piow
London 6 December 2015 - The conviction of 75-year old Aravindan Balakrishnan of several counts of rape, indecent sexual assault, causing bodily harm, cruelty to a person under 16, and false imprisonment by a London court makes international headline. It is bizarre for a person to be held in captivity for three decades since birth in a busy district in London, and held together with other abused adults from well-educated background.
This case first hit the international headlines in November 2013 when a 30-year-old woman, whose real name was withheld for legal reasons but is now referred to in the media by the pseudonym “Fran”, was rescued from a house in South London.
It transpired that the woman was held in captivity by Balakrishnan since birth until 2013. Two other women in their late 50s and 60s were also rescued, and described at the time as slaves.
In the course of the trial, Fran told the court that she was not allowed to go to school, see a doctor, have friends, cuddle the other female adults in the house, or leave the house on her own. The denials of common comforts of life were too many to list in this article.
Fran was brought up as a child believing that her mother died giving birth to her, and her biological father was a Peruvian martyr who died fighting a people’s war. It was only much later that she knew it was a lie concocted by Balakrishnan, her real father. Her biological mother was Sian Davies, one of the handful of females living with her in the household controlled by Balakrishnan and his wife Chanda Pittni who originally came from Tanzania.
It took the jury less than 6 hours to come to a unanimous decision on 14 of the 16 counts after hearing three weeks of evidence from Fran, and two other female witnesses who were former members of Bala’s household dubbed “the collective”, as well as from Balakrishnan.
The three female witnesses told the jury how Balakrishnan used violence against all of them, and how they lived in fear believing that they would die if they disobeyed Balakrishnan dictates as he was supposed to command an invisible electronic device called Jackie invented by the Communist Party of China to control the world.
Details of the violence, sexual and psychological abuses of the victims by Balakrisnan were widely reported, and need no rehearsing in this article.
This woman first appeared in the final three days of the trial accompanying Balakrishnan who was then on bail, and his wife Chanda Pittni to court. She is 58-year old Josephine Herivel, a former child musical prodigy whose father was a famous scientist. Ironically it was she who helped Fran raised the alarm about her plight which led to Balakrishnan’s eventual downfall.
Josephine is no stranger to the case. She joined Balakrishnan before the birth of Fran in 1983, and was at all material times, a member of the collective where the offences took place.
In her evidence, Fran told the jury how Josephine, nickname Josie, tormented her and spied on her since she was a child, but later became sympathetic. Josephine was initially rescued from the collective together with Fran in 2013, and was given counseling. Her unexpected appearance, and intervention came as a shock to those who knew her tragic past.
Josephine in her interview after Balakrishnan’s conviction told the Daily Telegraph that contrary to what others said, she was not suffering from Stockholm syndrome. She insisted “I know 100 per cent he is innocent. “
As a practicing criminal lawyer, and observer at the proceedings, and having heard the evidence of the key witnesses and the defendant, as well as the carefully crafted 5 hour long summing up and directions of the trial judge. I do not have the slightest doubt that the jury’s decision was right, and Josephine is wrong.
This twist of event, however, points to the psychological complexity of those whose lives were enmeshed in cults, and the lessons to be learnt are relevant not just to experts, but also to families whose loved ones are in a similar situation.
The end of the trial only signals the beginning of the reconstruction of the lives of those who were tragically affected by Balakrishnan.
Media reports both in the UK and elsewhere liberally headlined the news items with the term “Maoist Cult leader” to describe Balakrishnan. The headline is misleading as although Balakrishnan did outrageously claim in the mid 1970s that his organization, the Workers' Institute of Marxism–Leninism–Mao Zedong in Brixton was affiliated to the Communist Party of China, he clearly fell out with Maoism when Fran was growing up.
In her evidence, Fran explained to the jury that she created two imaginery friends as a child, one was Mao Tse Tung, and the other was Winston Churchill because “Comrade Bala” hated them both.
In an entry in Fran’s diary dated 15 Aug 1990 Bala wrote in red ink that she was not to lie in the bed of a collective member who was “poodle of ugly Mao”. And in another entry, Balakrishnan was said to have scribbled a note in Fran’s diary that Mao should never be allowed to return in any form.
With the evidence before the court, there was no justification to characterize the Cult as Maoist.
Balakrishnan came to the United Kingdom in 1964 on a British Council scholar. In court, he claimed to be a leader of the Socialist Club in Singapore. According to those who were familiar with that period of Singapore history, he had grossly overstated his importance.
He did however successfully capitalized on the political fervor of late 1960s and early 70s. He took advantage of the youthful revolutionary zeal in London, and quickly established an impressive group of Malaysian and Singaporean students around him.
However, by 1973, the group who were initially charmed by demagoguery deserted him en masse to form their own democratic based students and nurses organizations. After the initial flirtations with Balakrishnan, the vast majority had no appetite for his ultra-leftwing slogans, ideological mumbo jumbos, dictatorial organizational methods and penchant for breaking personal relationships.
Soon after, his foray into English politics also came to a halt when he was expelled from the Communist Party of England (Marxist-Leninist).
By 1976, Balakrishnan who then egoistically portrayed himself as a political thinker was dismissed even by leftwing commentators as the most lunatic of the lunatic fringe of the British left. He drew attention to his group by gate crashing into forums organized by others.
A former student leader of the School of Oriental and African Students told me that in 1976 they used to wait eagerly for Balakrishnan’s followers including Sian Davies to appear at the campus with their politically outrageous leaflets just for a good laugh. Balakrishnan was then claiming in all seriousness that the Chinese Peoples’ Liberation Army would soon be marching into Brixton to liberate the working poor. That prophecy of Balakrishnan did not happen because the revolution was delayed following Chairman Mao’s death.
Under cross-examination, Balakrishnan reluctantly admitted that by 1978/9 he was a political nobody, and there was nothing political going on in his collective.
He admitted in court, that for seven years he would while away his time by going around hospitals attending free lectures. That personal pursuit would be harmless if he had not insisted that all members of the collective had to stand for hours in a semi-circle each evening listening to his talks. Those caught dosing off were assaulted.
What held the collective together for the next three decades from 1980 was neither political ideology nor camaraderie, but Balakrishnan personality cult created no doubt by his evil genius.
By this stage, all the men from his Workers’ Institute who were once mesmerized by his political polemics had left, leaving behind only half a dozen ladies who were marooned in the collective because they had already burnt all bridges with their families and friends. They were so brainwashed that they believed they would die if they cross Balakrishnan, or they leave the collective.
From the evidence of Fran, we now know that Balakrishan had replaced ideology with Jackie, the invisible all powerful satellite controlled device. JACKIE was made up of an acronym for Jehovah, Allah, Christ, Krishna and Immortal Easwaran . He managed to physically and psychologically disorientate his captives to such extent that they believed Balakrishnan was God, and could give and take life through his control of Jackie. The two other female witnesses who accused him of rape and indecent assault told the jury that they did not leave the collective earlier out of fear. Such was the brainwashing that even today Josephine believes in the power of Jackie.
The Aravindan Balakrishan i.e. AB Cult is in a class of its own because of its unique history, and transformation from a cult initially based on ultra-left wing ideology, to one based on the power of a fictitious machine. Balakrishnan started in the mid-1970s drawing in a handful of politically idealistic and committed but naïve youth such as Sian Davies and the Malaysian Aishah Wahab, then over a short period robbed them of their autonomy and caused them to break all links with the outside world. The story is yet to be told of how such intelligent individuals eventually succumbed to Balakrishnan’s psychological and physical pressure, suspended their rationality and humanity, and ended up living in fear of a fictitious machine named AB Jackie.
Meanwhile, anyone in Balakrishnan’s shoes would rightly think that he would die in prison. But in Balakrishnan’s case, there is always the AB’s exceptionalism which he once argued before his comrades in his own party which led to his expulsion.
In court, when asked by the Judge where Fran got the idea from when she wrote in her diary “Comrade Bala to live forever”, Bala answered “I might have said that.”
Well, Balakrishnan did tell the members of the collective that he was immortal, That certainly is something the Judge might want to ponder over when he is due to appear before her on the 29th January next year for sentencing. Sentencing guidelines might have to change to suit such an exceptional being.
*The sentence for Aravindan Balakrishan is expected to be delivered on 29 January.
(Featured Photo - Reuters)