Dr Hema Radhakrishnan
How would you describe your religious or ideological identity?
I am of Indian origin, I was brought up in India in a very religious Hindu family. My parents went to Temple regularly and celebrated every religious festival at home. Personally I consider myself spiritual but not necessarily religious. I am a Hindu, I am a believer, I go to Temple, but am not as steadfast as my parents. As a teenager I thought that religious identity was very important for me, I didn’t want to accept the same religion as my parents, I was that much of a rebel. I read various Holy Books and put them in date order in my own mind. I decided that Hinduism at the eighth century BC was the oldest, then Christianity and then Islam at 8th century AD, but they all had a very similar message. I decided to be a Hindu, it was my choice, not because somebody told me that I had to be. This is something that I take seriously. It’s my identity, but socially I have friends in every religion. Christian, Muslim, Hindu, I can socialise with everyone. No difference there. But although I am religious I am not superstitious in any way. I don’t believe that any of the really nasty things which happen in the name of religion are really about religion. Like Sati in India where wives are burnt when the husband dies, it is something unbelievably not religious, it is not there in any of those books. People say that it is religious but it is not. It is something that I actively oppose and speak out when I get the chance, it is wrong. It is perhaps more of an interpretation thing of what religion is. The books are good, but they are vague for a reason.
Would you say that Great Britain is an equal and tolerant society, particularly in relation to religion and belief?
Greatly yes, it is very equal and tolerant, but it depends a lot on which level you socialise in. When you talk about the more educated people who have been to university, they are very tolerant and if there are any biases they are unconscious. But when you think about people who haven’t had much education, whose literacy is low Then perhaps the fear of unknown is higher. At that level, on the tram or the grocery store, there is discrimination. I have been called an asylum seeker, all sorts. But from people who I wouldn’t ever socialise with, people who think that they are better than everyone with a brown skin. But frankly I feel sorry for them, because they feel that it is their country and other people are taking over. We’re all working hard here, and everyone should be appreciated for the hard work they are putting in.
How easy is it for you to live in accordance with your faith? Are there any challenges, and if so, are they social, legal or political?
I don’t really know much about the legal aspects, it has never come up. Politically I don’t see much of a challenge. If anything, Britain is more tolerant politically in trying to accommodate everybody than other countries. For example I come from India, and there are no shopping malls with praying facilities. Although the vast majority of our population is very religious, either Hindu or Muslim. But all the same the ethos in most other countries is that if you are going to pray, you shouldn’t be in a shopping centre; you should be in a temple or a mosque and that is the ideology of politicians in India. But here it is different and because people are given more they sometimes start expecting more, sometimes this is feasible and sometimes not. But generally I think that the society is very inclusive.
How does Hinduism regard human rights? Has it contributed to the world’s understanding of them?
Definitely, it has quite a lot of influence on human rights. It is one of the oldest religions; and a lot of the texts are still being used. They were written in Sanskrit which has influenced every other language which came after. Hinduism treats women as equals, half of the gods in Hinduism are women. Women are given a high status, it’s a bit like Italian mamas being the centre of the world! It’s very much like that in Hinduism, when you read the scriptures, women are seen as very important, which I feel goes down when you come to the later religions. Equality and having parity is important for me. And also treating children well, all that is within Hinduism. Its family values are very important. Life is divided into three different stages: education, where you look after yourself; then the second stage when you look after a family, nurturing a family and giving them everything which you received as a child; and then the third phase when you can’t do very much and can reasonably expect your family to be helping you out and you spend most of your time praying. There are rules about what you can expect from the world when you are in need, and also responsibilities at times when you can contribute.
Are there any practical ways in which Hinduism currently has an impact on human rights in Great Britain?
I can’t think of anything apart from the Sikhs trying to get recognition for Gurkhas in the past, and they are all Hindus as such.
Do you think that Human Rights are generally respected by public bodies in Great Britain?
I think it’s probably taken more as a joke at times. In yesterday’s news a people trafficker was asking for asylum on the grounds of human rights, as he would be in inhumane prisons if he goes back to Greece. Some people deserve to be looked after because they would be in a really bad state elsewhere. But for criminal to demand better prisons, is taking the Mickey out of human rights. For me, human rights are about more than granting asylum. It is about treating people well, including people who are here. Making sure everyone has enough food is more important than the kind of prison this man would go to in Greece.
Do you think that public bodies get the level of intervention right in the lives of citizens? Do they step in too much or not enough?
I don’t think that it is too much. Everyone has a right to their opinion and belief and is free to do what they want as long as it is peaceful. One of the biggest temples in London has received funding from the lottery, which shows how supportive the State is of religious people getting on with things. Sometimes they have to interfere a bit to check that everything is legitimate, for example with something like that, you have to check that everything is above board before handing money over.
When do you think that the State has a positive duty to intervene?
When someones behaviour affects other people. So if for example I were to say that I am a Hindu so I am not letting my daughter attend school after the age of 10, then letting me alone is unfair on my child. At that stage, I would be happy for the State to intervene. I of course would never do that. But if someone was depriving their child of education in the name of religion, then I would want the state to intervene. Again, with female genital mutilation, it is right for the State to prevent that harm.
Do you think that living in a Parliamentary democratic society is a good thing? Would you prefer another form of government?
I would always prefer a democracy to another system (a corruption free democracy though).
Do you feel that you have a personal responsibility to vote?
Yes, I’m not sure if it comes from faith in itself, but from values which I hold, both based on faith and otherwise.
Would you like to see the powers of Parliament to be limited? Should judges have the power to strike down legislation?
I think that I would like to see judges empowered. The way things are at present are not equitable, the government which is in power makes decisions and these don’t necessarily reflect on what people want. The best example for me is trying to make every single primary school an academy when nobody in the whole country wants this to happen. Because Parliament has the supreme power it can do this. If the Supreme Court could overturn such things, then politicians would be more wary.
Do you think that our democracy is sufficiently inclusive of all groups? Is it harder for some groups to contribute than others?
It is probably harder for minority groups, but I don’t see a better solution, I wouldn’t prefer an autocracy. Also, if you are a minority group in the country, then it isn’t unreasonable to try to fit in. You have chosen to live here, to bring up your family here. I am British, although my roots are from India I don’t consider myself Indian any more, I am British, and I would change my ways to be British rather than carry on being an Indian citizen. As somebody who believes in the same things as others, it is not hard to participate. You have to get in with the dialogue. I despise having a cabinet which is all male and Etonian. That I do disagree with, I would rather see more diverse people running the country.
Does it concern that members of the House of Lords are not elected?
It’s a difficult one, there are good and bad points both ways. That is why I said corruption free democracy right at the start. If it is corruption free, then you can appoint people who are perhaps more strategic thinkers, who will contribute to society more effectively than politicians who want to be elected and have power. But when things aren’t done transparently, people might be getting there for the wrong reasons with their own vested interests. It might be more equitable to have the House of Lords elected, but if you are going to do that why not just stick with one elected House?
How do you feel about the presence of Church of England bishops in the House of Lords?
I think that you either have representatives from all religions or none in there, not just one and everyone else being ignored. Given that it’s a democracy, they could be elected, but implementing a voting system would be difficult, as you wouldn’t want to have people from other religions voting and skewing things. But I think that the religious communities could choose their own representative.
Do you feel represented by the Church of England bishops at present?
I don’t. If they did represent me, I would expect to see them quoting Sanskrit texts and texts from other religions. I have never seen that, they always quote from the Bible. That shows what they represent. It is actions not words which show what you represent.
Do you think that public authorities try to respect legislation made by Parliament?
I think they try their best, nobody wants to be on the wrong side of the law. But sometimes legislation is impractical. For example waiting times in A&E, if there aren’t enough doctors you will be there for eight hours or whatever. Legislation comes before resources, so there is always a lag there.
How do you feel about the EU and devolution of powers in the UK?
Positive, I am for in rather than out with the EU campaign. Sometimes it is better to be within a group. And if other members of the group are deciding something which affects them too, it can’t be that bad. It isn’t something being imposed on you and something which they will have no part of. I haven’t found anything from the EU which impacts Britain more negatively than everyone else in the EU.
What does your faith say about people with power, what responsibilities come with power?
Hinduism is about karma, good deeds take you to Heaven and bad deeds take you to Hell. The fight for power is at the heart of this, people can have power but should use it in the right way.
Would you say that in the UK at present, Hindus are appropriately and proportionately represented in public life?
I probably don’t know. I think that at times Hindus are not represented because of the choices they make, Hindus prefer to be doctors or accountants than politicians. It is not necessarily that they have been thrown out of politics, more than they choose to do other things. But there are an incredible number of Hindu entrepreneurs now. They are disproportionately represented in some fields and not at all in others.
Would you say that there is enough distance between politicians and the judiciary?
I always thought that almost everyone in Parliament has a law degree. But the judges probably are independent, I don’t see any evidence for the government forcing the judges to do anything. But I only know what is reported in the news, you never really know. I hope that the BBC is independent.
Are there any additional checks on government power which you would like to see introduced?
I definitely think that there should be more checks. They shouldn’t be able to get away with just anything that they want to do.
How does the Hindu community challenge decisions which it sees as problematic?
I don’t see a formal way of complaining about legislation. It tends to be mainly social media, Twitter and Facebook, and signing petitions. People say what they think is wrong and why.
Do you think that public authorities have a good understanding of the needs of Hindu citizens?
Probably not, I’m not sure that they can even distinguish it. Most of the time I am seen as brown skinned, so people think that I must be a Muslim. The other day I was dropping son at the nursery and the lady told me that they were doing Halal meals from next week, and I thought, how does that affect me? Because we are more of a minority than other groups, people are less aware.
Have you ever demonstrated, signed a petition, anything like that?
I have signed a petition. I know of people who have contacted MPs about things which they perceived as unfair, and the MP did help. I wouldn’t be reluctant to do it, if I had to.
Is it important for you to always act within the law of the state?
I’ve never come across any time where I would have to break the law for the values I hold. Following the law is an important value for me. I guess I might break take the law if it was necessary, for example if I needed to take an injured child to hospital, and it was necessary I wouldn’t mind putting them in a car without a car seat if there was an adult who could carry them. I’m comfortable breaking the law if the gain is bigger than the loss. But I would never break the law unless it was a small thing like that in an emergency.
Do your beliefs require you to speak out against injustices affecting third parties?
Yes, I do feel that I should speak out for people how are vulnerable. I am a friend of the LGBT community in the university, because I think that minority groups need allies on the outside as well as support from members of the group.
Would you say that the Rule of Law is applied equally, or do some groups experience preferential or preferential treatment?
In every society, people with more money and education have more access to things than people without. With legal aid gone, now the difference is probably even greater.
How do you feel about the general trend towards an increase in police powers and State surveillance?
The State should take on greater power in light of the way in which things have been happening over the last few years. But I don’t feel that the powers are being used in a very targeted or effective way, random people are being stopped and searched, whereas people on the list to observe seem to get away. Innocent people walking in a tube station get searched for 20 minutes and that is where the problem lies. Technology and intelligence could both be used better. It is more a matter of showing power at times. Just after the Brussels attack there were police everywhere and almost everyone was being searched. I’m pretty sure that they hardly found anything, I think that they could be using those resources more efficiently and public money could be spent in better ways, than showing everyone we are on alert. That probably just makes the terrorists proud that they have made us do this, and that they are getting attention.
Are there any legal rules which have a negative impact on your life?
Not that I can think of, no.
Is there anything which you would like to add?
Nothing else really.
Dr Hema Radhakrishnan was appointed Associate Dean for Social Responsibility at The University of Manchester in August 2016, continuing a role previously held within the former Faculty of Life Sciences since January 2015. She oversees the environmental sustainability, diversity and inclusion agenda in the Faculty.
Hema completed her undergraduate degree and PhD in Optometry and was appointed as a lecturer in Manchester in 2005, before being promoted to senior lecturer in 2012. She has led the physiological optics research lab in Manchester since 2005.
She received the Neil Charman Medal (2015) and the Bernard Gilmartin OPO award (2009) from the College of Optometrists for her outstanding contribution to ophthalmic research.
Hema is a qualified optometrist and teaches clinical optometric skills to undergraduate students. She also holds a PGCE in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education, and is a fellow of the Higher Education Academy. She has served as the Association of Optometrists Councillor, representing academics in optometry across the UK. She is also an editorial board member of the College of Optometrists’ continuing education journal, Optometry in Practice.
Hema has been involved in a range of social responsibility activities. She was the University’s lead for the Wellcome Trust Arts Fund sponsored Language of the Eye exhibition at the Waterside Arts Centre. Her work on promoting equality and diversity in the Faculty of Life Sciences was highly commended at the University’s Making a Difference Awards in 2016.
She is a member of the University’s Athena SWAN self-assessment team and is highly committed to addressing the attainment gap among undergraduate students.