‘Slavery’ couple ran Maoist political centre in 1970s

Pair linked to 13 properties in London while Brixton locals grow weary of drama

The house at Peckford Place in Brixton, London, where three women were allegedly kept as slaves for more than 30 years. Photograph: Luke MacGregor/Reuters

The house at Peckford Place in Brixton, London, where three women were allegedly kept as slaves for more than 30 years. Photograph: Luke MacGregor/Reuters

Tue, Nov 26, 2013, 01:00

The building at the corner of Acre Lane and Solon Road in Brixton is home to Khamsa, an Algerian restaurant serving a delightful Berber dish served in an earthenware pot.

Once, however, in the 1970s, it was a centre of Maoist revolutionary politics, led by Aravindan Balakrishnan, an Indian who came to Britain in the 1960s via Malaysia, and his wife, Chanda.

Back then, the couple confidently predicted that 1977 would mark the year when the world would be liberated from capitalist oppression by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army.

Most nights, people attended their “political evening school” and theoretical study groups popularising “Marxist-Leninism-Mao Zedong thought”, according to a flyer printed at the time.

Today, the couple, now 73 and 67, are on police bail, having been arrested last Thursday following the rescue a month ago of three women, one of them Irish. The couple were questioned for nearly 18 hours “on suspicion of being involved in forced labour and domestic servitude, contrary to section 71 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009”. They were bailed until January.

Thirty-five years ago, the husband was known as Comrade Bala. With a reputation in the community for being fractious, he was expelled from the Communist Party.

His 25 disciples on Acre Lane were expected to wear their Mao badges prominently. Earnings were handed up, too, former members recalled. Those who spoke up were expelled.

Thirteen people lived in the Brixton building during the 1970s, then known as Mao Zedong Memorial Centre, with the others living as “co-residents” nearby. Two of the 13 appear to have included the Irishwoman, now aged 57, and a Malaysian woman, now 69 and reportedly frail after a stroke.

Last month, they, along with a British woman (30) , were taken into care by the Freedom Charity and police from a flat in Peckford Place, on the other side of Brixton village.

The Peckford Place flat was not occupied until 2004-05, although the Acre Lane commune had begun to break up in disagreement from the late 1970s. By the early 1980s, it had gone “underground”.

The full details of the journey made from Acre Lane to Peckford Place remain a mystery, although is likely that there were stopping-off points along the way.

Police are investigating connections that the couple had with 13 other properties over the years, although electoral records link Chanda Balakrishnan to just one, in Herne Hill in south London.

Yesterday, locals in Peckford Place began to weary of the drama in their midst, although a few feared the consequences that may emerge from it.

Should the council have done more, one couple was asked. “No, I wouldn’t want that to happen,” the husband said. “We don’t want the Stasi around here.”

Jesse Paddy showed off a jumper that he said was knitted for him by the youngest of the women, Rosie, and given as a present last April with a note addressed to “my dearest Jesse”.

Mr Paddy said he had seen the Malaysian woman and the youngest on the street, but always accompanied by the couple, but he had never seen the Irish woman.

He was once invited into the flat and was given some juice, before exchanging family photographs with the couple. “They seemed okay.”

Lambeth Council has yet to detail its knowledge of the five and whether it ever knew that five people were going to be living in the flat when it was allocated.

The property was a flagship project for Lambeth when it was built, part of a multi-million pound effort to tackle social woes in the district, better known as Angell Town. Council officers would have had occasional contacts with residents in the years since over everything from pest control to basic maintenance of the property.

Liberal Democrats leader Ashley Lumsden is looking for answers, particularly given reports that concerns were once raised about the younger woman’s non-attendance at school.

“We are extremely concerned at the reports we have seen and are looking to the council to explain its involvement from a housing, educational and social services perspective,” he said.

“London is very much a mosaic,” south Armagh-born Aidan McQuade, who runs Anti- Slavery International from a building 15 minutes walk from Peckford Place, told The Irish Times. “People live in a community, but they are not necessarily neighbours. People don’t necessarily stick their nose in, so it is very easy to hide stuff behind closed doors.”