Growing up a
prisoner in a cult

Opening the door

At exactly 11:15, the front door of a council flat in Brixton opened. Two women stepped out on to a quiet residential street.

The younger woman, Rosie, had an awkward gait. Her movement was stiff and clunky, as though she simply wasn't used to walking any distance. In fact, she had spent the past 30 years - her whole life - in captivity.

Now she was ill and needed urgent medical attention.

Born into a “collective”, she was not allowed to see a doctor, had never been allowed outside alone and had been told that if she tried to leave she would spontaneously combust and die.

Worried she might not survive her illness, on 25 October 2013, Rosie and another woman, Josie, sneaked out.

Waiting for them just round the corner were members of an organisation that helps people who have been abused, trafficked or enslaved. Along with the police, they had helped organise the escape.

It soon became apparent that Rosie and 57-year-old Josie weren't the only women who lived in the flat, and when police officers returned they met Aisha - a 69-year-old woman originally from Malaysia. At first she didn't want to leave, but as they talked, she changed her mind.

In the weeks that followed, it became clear how extraordinary their life had been.

All three women seemed extremely frightened, often referring to an all-powerful force called Jackie, which they believed might seek retribution or cause them terrible harm. They were terrified of electricity, which they called “eeee” and seemed anxious that household appliances might blow up or explode.

As they revealed details of their existence and Rosie gradually became more confident, she decided to change her name to Katy, inspired by the lyrics of Katy Perry's song, Roar, which is about a woman overcoming a difficult relationship and finding her voice.

Katy's own story, and everything she had managed to overcome, proved far stranger than anyone could have imagined.

Life with Comrade Bala

The household in Brixton was run by Aravindan Balakrishnan, who the women called Comrade Bala or AB.

Describing life with him, Katy explains how he exercised total control over his so-called comrades.

He said that “he's God, he rules the world, he's immortal and he's our leader and teacher and we just have to obey him”.

He claimed to have an all-powerful machine at his disposal which he called Jackie, an acronym for Jehovah, Allah, Christ, Krishna and Immortal Easwaran. Jackie was supposedly an invisible computer satellite built by the Chinese.

Aravindan Balakrishnan

Aravindan Balakrishnan

Balakrishnan claimed that with Jackie's help he could control the world from inside the flat. He took credit for all global events, including wars and natural disasters.

Balakrishnan told his followers it was only a matter of time until he would become ‘the overt ruler of the world’

One day in 1995, a pizza delivery man rang their doorbell by mistake. “Bala said this was the British fascist state trying to provoke him by bringing a pizza he hadn't ordered and ringing on his bell to disturb his important political work,” says Katy.

Later that day, there was a huge earthquake in Japan.

“So the same day as the fascist state knocked on God's door, Bala's door, there was a huge earthquake in Kobe to punish the fascist state,” she says. In Japanese, Kobe means God's door.

Kobe after the earthquake, 1995

Kobe after the earthquake, 1995

“From what he said, if something happens anywhere in the world, it's going to affect everything else in other parts of the world,” says Aisha. “Nothing exists in isolation, everything has its consequences. That's all I understand. I just accept it because it's beyond my comprehension.”

Balakrishnan told his followers it was only a matter of time until he would become “the overt ruler of the world”, adds Katy.

“He used to look at the newspapers and say: 'You see this article, they're coming closer to me.' And then he would ask: 'Who's coming to whom?' And everybody used to say: 'They're coming to you,' all in unison around him.”

Throughout her life, Balakrishnan warned Katy that she would experience spontaneous human combustion, or SHC, if she ever stepped outside - Jackie would know and make her burst into flames.

Once, when she was a small child, he put her outside the front door as a punishment and she became hysterical with fear, assuming she was about to die. Later, wondering why she had survived, she rationalised away the inconsistency thinking that because Balakrishnan himself had put her outside, Jackie knew to spare her on this occasion.

Katy describes how Balakrishnan persuaded his followers to believe that, if they misbehaved, Jackie even had the power to stop the household plumbing from working as a punishment.

Daily life was hard. The comrades were expected to rise early to do the housework, make meals and serve Balakrishnan. They competed for his favour and it was considered a great honour to be allowed to turn on the shower for him or to enter the bathroom after he had finished to turn the shower off.

In the early years, when the group was larger, some of the comrades would be sent out to work to make money for the collective, although neither Balakrishnan nor his wife ever had a job. Aisha worked at one time in Superdrug and then in the department store Morleys in Brixton, while Josie worked in a local industrial laundry. One comrade was a nurse and another a midwife.

Those who didn't go out to work remained indoors inside the collective, where every day they had to attend Balakrishnan's morning lectures, standing to attention, sometimes for three or four hours. Anyone who sat down was punished.

The bedrock of Balakrishnan's belief system was the tenets and teachings of Marx, Lenin and Mao. The group wanted to bring about a communist revolution and believed they were building the new world. They operated in secret and hid themselves from the “British fascist state”.

Lectures were extended rants that often consisted of Balakrishnan denouncing individual comrades for perceived misdemeanours or identifying what he called synchronisations in the world, based on things he had read in the papers or seen on the news.

“Someone used to have to log these synchronisations and write them down. As a child, I would spend ages copying these out,” says Katy.

Balakrishnan created a mythology around himself. Every day, comrades had to sing songs celebrating his existence. The anniversary of his conception and his birthday - 16 October and 16 July - were celebrated and significant world events which happened on or close to these dates were seen as being synchronised with his life, providing evidence of his greatness.

He claimed that the splitting of the atom, the moon landing and the storming of the Bastille - which happened about 150 years before he was born - were all linked to him in this way.

Comrades came to believe that everything was interconnected and that Balakrishnan, with the help of Jackie, was all-powerful. “I received a nasty letter from my brother in Malaysia," says Aisha. “AB opened it and read it and then a few years after that my brother passed away, so I said to myself, 'OK, that's Jackie's work.'”

When the Space Shuttle Challenger blew up in 1986, Balakrishnan claimed this was because people in the household were challenging him.

“He said that his name Aravindan began with the sound 'AR', so it was 'Challenge - AR'. People in the house were challenging him, so that's why Challenge-AR blew up,” says Katy.

Balakrishnan believed in his own immortality and told his followers that they too would become immortal if they lived according to his rules. Remaining inside the flat was one way of extending their lives. “Captive animals live longer,” was one of his oft-repeated mantras.

“He didn't believe in going to the dentist because he says we should let our teeth drop naturally and then when you're 100, your teeth will re-grow and you'll get another set,” says Aisha.

Comrades were not allowed to see a doctor either. “He used to say that NHS means Never Help Self. So if we get ill, we have to focus on him and then we will get better as if by magic,” explains Katy.

Balakrishnan introduced many acronyms into the language of the collective - the “British fascist state” became BFS and Nato was known as Farto, which stood for Fascist and Racist Terror Organisation.

Our brains… they were dirty - they had to be washed of all ideas

Aisha Wahab

The collective itself was commonly referred to as AB's CCF(P), which stood for Aravindan Balakrishnan's Communist Collective Family Pilot Unit.

So why did the women stay with Balakrishnan for so long?

The group had started as a left-wing political organisation but evolved as Balakrishnan developed a raft of pseudo-religious ideas. Over time “we were brainwashed” explains Aisha.

“Our brains… they were dirty. They had to be washed of all ideas. When you want to build a new world, you can't bring the old into it, so we had to chip away the old and fill the void with new ideas.”

Aisha and Katy both report that beatings were a regular feature of life within the collective and if there was ever any dissent or disobedience, violence would ensue.

Once, when the thought of leaving did cross her mind, Aisha quickly realised she had nowhere to go. “I had nobody outside, I had lost contact with my family, I had no money, I had no job, and I might have been deported.”

However, Josie defends Balakrishnan and fervently denies that he ever used force.

Revolution is born

Katy was born in 1983. Her mother, Sian Davies, had joined the collective voluntarily and began a sexual relationship with Balakrishnan in the early 80s.

Sian became pregnant and their child was given the name Prem Maopinduzi. Prem means love in Hindi, and Maopinduzi appears to be a combination of the Swahili word for revolution, mapinduzi, and Mao.

Katy's birth certificate

Katy's birth certificate

“It meant Love Revolution and I hated that… he thought that when he rules the world I'm meant to be like a soldier for him or his mouthpiece,” says Katy, and in her teens she started to refer to herself as Rosie.

Members of the collective were not told who her father was and were led to believe that Sian had been impregnated by Jackie. “He used to say I was the product of electronic warfare,” says Katy.

Katy's mother, Sian Davies

Katy's mother, Sian Davies

At this point, Balakrishnan coined the term Project Prem.

Project Prem was an experiment in child rearing intended to eliminate the nuclear family - a pilot for a new form of social organisation that would be implemented globally once Balakrishnan ruled the world.

Comrade Prem, as Katy was known, was dressed in genderless clothing, never went to school, never got to know any other children and only rarely left the house.

She was not told who her parents were and was brought up collectively by the group, who were not allowed to show her affection.

Only Balakrishnan was allowed to cuddle her. “If I was to cuddle other people, he used to say that that's like being a lesbian, to cuddle other women,” she says.

Balakrishnan's own childhood was spent in Asia. He was born in India in 1940 and moved to Singapore with his family when he was eight. In 1963, he travelled to the UK on a British Council scholarship to study at the London School of Economics.

As a student, he became increasingly involved in left-wing politics and eventually abandoned his studies. In 1974 he set up the Workers' Institute of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Tsetung Thought, which he described as a “Chinese-initiated World Revolutionary Party”. Its slogan was “China's Chairman is Our Chairman. China's Path is Our Path”.

By 1976, his Workers' Institute had moved into premises on Acre Lane in Brixton, south London. On the ground floor was a meeting room and a shop selling communist tracts. Upstairs was a communal living area where about 15 of Balakrishnan's core followers slept on the floor, with men in one room and women in another. Along with his Tanzanian wife Chandra and her disabled sister, the group consisted mainly of fellow students from Singapore and Malaysia, who felt ambivalent about Britain's colonial and imperialist past.

Aisha Wahab had come to the UK from Malaysia at the age of 24 to study quantity surveying. She joined the group in its early days.

Aisha Wahab

Aisha Wahab

“I was really inspired by him and drawn to him. I thought he was great to have been able to clarify our minds as to what to do with our lives,” she says. Other members included Josie Herivel, a brilliant young violinist studying at the Royal College of Music and Sian Davies, a postgraduate student at the London School of Economics, who used family money to pay the rent on the Acre Lane premises.

An old school friend, Sally Unwin, remembers Sian as very academic, “a deep thinker”.

But the last time she remembers seeing her, Sian was “dressed like a Maoist, with all the blue and the collar… and the way she talked to me, I didn't know who she was… It was quite scary”.

It was not long before the political activities at the Workers' Institute attracted the attention of the police and in March 1978, it was raided by officers searching for drugs.

Although no drugs were found, nine members of the group, including Balakrishnan, were sent to prison for assaulting police officers during the raid.

At their trial, they refused to recognise the authority of the court and when called to the stand, they shouted “Long live Chairman Mao! Long live the Communist Party of China! Death to the British fascist state! Victory to world revolution!”

After a brief period of incarceration, Balakrishnan decided that in order to escape the attention of the “British fascist state”, the group must go underground. So from then on, it operated in secret, frequently moving house. By 1980, it consisted of only seven followers, all of whom were women.

As the women stopped going out to work, the group came to rely on Chandra's sister's disability allowance and Chandra's carer's allowance for an income.

No way out

Balakrishnan exerted control over the collective for many years. As well as threatening and beating them, he would use each individual's past to further undermine them.

Sian Davies's father had killed himself when she was a teenager and Balakrishnan would repeatedly tell her this was her fault. By 1996, Sian's mental health had become fragile and on Christmas Eve of that year, she fell from the second floor bathroom window of a terraced house in Shakespeare Road, Brixton in an apparent suicide attempt.

The house in Shakespeare Road where the collective lived for several years

The house in Shakespeare Road where the collective lived for several years

“Sian was acting really oddly saying she's a devil and was starting to behave really unlike herself,” says Katy.

“There was screaming in the middle of the night and subsequently I learned that Sian had tried to stab herself with a knife.

She had tried to run out the door... then because she couldn't escape that way, she went out through the window

“On the morning of Christmas Eve, I went downstairs and Sian was lying on the floor. Her hands and legs were tied and she was gagged and she had this piece of cloth in her mouth. It may have been a sock or something.”

Balakrishnan and Chandra were both shouting at Sian. “She had tried to run out the door, that's why she was tied up, because she was trying to escape. Then because she couldn't escape that way, she went out through the window.”

Sian was taken to hospital, where she fell into a coma. Balakrishnan insisted that Sian's family should not be told what had happened and Josie told them on the phone that Sian was “away travelling in India and sends her love”.

After lying in a coma for seven months, Sian died. At the inquest into her death, the coroner asked Aisha whether Sian had any children. On Balakrishnan's instructions, Aisha said she didn't.

“We definitely didn't want Katy to be taken away and live a life as of old and not participate in building a new society,” she explains.

It was around this time that Katy guessed Sian was her mother, but paradoxically, after Sian's death, life got better for Katy in some respects.

“She was one of the worst servants of Bala, so it was such a relief with her not there. His worst enforcer had gone,” she says.

And Sian was not the only person to die in the course of the collective's existence. In 2004, Oh Kar Eng, a nurse from Malaysia, who had been with Balakrishnan since the 1970s, banged her head on a kitchen cabinet and had a stroke. The following day, she too died.

Oh Kar Eng died in 2004

Oh Kar Eng died in 2004

These two deaths reinforced the idea in the minds of the remaining members that Balakrishnan had the power of life and death over them.

“AB said that he helps people to live and that those who die have not internalised his teachings enough. That's why it frightened me,” says Aisha. “Sian and Oh had died and I thought 'OK, next time, it will be me.' I didn't want to die.”

By 2005, Katy’s situation had caused her to become deeply depressed. Observing life outside her window, she began to doubt Balakrishnan’s account of the world.

At the age of 22, having never gone outside on her own and despite believing she might be killed by Jackie, she decided to try to escape. She packed a bag and let herself out of the back door of the flat.

When she asked a passer-by for help, they suggested she go to the police station.

But with no experience of the outside world, she struggled to explain her situation to the officer at the desk, only saying that she had “run away from home”.

The officer persuaded Katy to let her phone Balakrishnan, who came to collect her. He reassured the police that all was well and took Katy back to the collective, where he denounced her and told her she was ungrateful.

Katy remained in captivity for another eight years.


Over the summer of 2013 Katy lost weight dramatically and became so unwell that Josie feared she might not survive. Arranging a doctor's appointment was not an option so the two women came up with a plan.

In early October, they saw a story about forced marriage on the BBC News and at the end the newsreader gave out a helpline number.

I just couldn't take living like an animal like that any more

Katy Morgan-Davies

Josie committed the number to memory and saved change in secret from her regular trips to the grocery shop. She smuggled a mobile phone into their home and, while Balakrishnan and Chandra watched Neighbours on television, they called for help.

Katy, a few days after her escape

Katy, a few days after her escape

They made a series of calls and were passed on to Gerard Stocks and Yvonne Hall at the Palm Cove Society, who, together with the Metropolitan Police, co-ordinated the women's rescue.

Each week Balakrishnan and Chandra went shopping at the same time, so Katy knew when there would be an opportunity to escape. “We had to make sure they were not anywhere near when we walked out of the house… so 11:15 sharp we left, Josie and me, with our trolleys.”

Yvonne and Gerard were waiting just round the corner. Katy was “delighted” but Josie already appeared to be having second thoughts.

Left to right: Aisha, Katy, Yvonne Hall and Josie

Left to right: Aisha, Katy, Yvonne Hall and Josie

“She knew the police were involved, she was beginning to regret it, thinking it'll make trouble for Bala,” says Katy.

But Katy was determined to leave and never go back: “I just couldn't take living like an animal like that any more, being treated with such disrespect and just being a non-person.”

She felt confident she could trust Yvonne. “After what I had come from, anything was better than that. That's all I knew for sure.”

When Katy left the collective she had “a hundred feelings at once, you can't really say what”. She couldn't believe it was true and was afraid that she would “wake up and find that I'm still stuck”.

As they slowly walked to the meeting point “Katy had a beaming smile” remembers Yvonne. “We just hugged each other.”

Aisha wanted to know why the cars coming towards us had white lights and the cars in front of us had red lights

Gerard Stocks

That same day, Yvonne and Gerard drove Katy, Josie and Aisha to Leeds where they gave them a place to stay. Katy was treated in hospital for diabetes.

“The women seemed to start and finish one another's sentences. They spoke in unison, as if they'd had the same conversations with each other for years and years and years, so if one of them started a sentence, the others knew what the next bit was going to be,” says Gerard.

“Aisha wanted to know why the cars coming towards us had white lights and the cars in front of us had red lights,” he adds.

It rapidly became clear that Katy in particular had very few life skills. She was “overwhelmed by the enormity of everything, because she had been confined," says Yvonne. “She couldn't cross a road, had never handled money and couldn't look around or make eye contact.”

Katy at Gerard and Yvonne's house

Katy at Gerard and Yvonne's house

After a while, Josie and Aisha were housed locally in sheltered accommodation, but Katy's needs were greater and she lived with Yvonne and Gerard for more than a year, while they helped her to develop the skills she would need to live independently.

Life after Project Prem

Balakrishnan was brought to trial in 2015 and was charged with sexual offences as well as with imprisoning his daughter. In the course of the police investigation, it emerged that he had sexually abused two women, Woman A and Woman B, over a period of years.

Woman A described in court how Balakrishnan had made her write an account of her sexual history, which he then used to humiliate her in front of the others. Later he sexually abused her, raped her and regularly beat her. In 1989, after 13 years, she left the collective.

Woman B was a nurse from Malaysia, who had moved into the Acre Lane commune in 1978. She too was beaten, sexually assaulted and raped. In 1992, she worked a night shift and found the courage not to return to the collective.

In January 2016, Balakrishnan was convicted of crimes including rape, sexual assault, child cruelty and the false imprisonment of his daughter. He was sentenced to 23 years in prison.

Josie and Chandra during Balakrishnan's trial

Josie and Chandra during Balakrishnan's trial

His wife Chandra and Josie Herivel stood by him and made a statement to the press, declaring his innocence and claiming he had been framed by the “British fascist state”.

Despite having voluntarily left the collective, Josie continues to follow his teachings and now devotes her time to trying to clear his name.

Josie still campaigns for Balakrishnan's release

Josie still campaigns for Balakrishnan's release

Aisha is now 72 and lives in sheltered housing in Leeds. She claims she was unaware of any sexual abuse taking place in the collective. Although she has regrets about the way Katy was treated, she still believes in campaigning to make the world a better place and volunteers once a week in a local charity shop. She also has regular dentist appointments to get her teeth fixed.

Katy has adopted the last name Morgan-Davies, consisting of two surnames from her mother’s side of the family.

She is doing her best to leave the indoctrination of her past behind and has made remarkable progress. She is studying English and maths at college and has recently moved out of supported accommodation into a flat of her own.

DNA tests carried out by the police confirmed that Balakrishnan is her father. Somehow she has managed to find it within herself to forgive him

“I used to hate him, but not any more. Nelson Mandela said that you are still in prison if you hold on to your anger, hatred and bitterness, so there’s no place for that in my life. I would like to reconcile with him in the future if he wants that. But you can’t clap with one hand.”