A revealing, if unsurprising, observation brings out starkly how marginalised the Muslim community is, and is set to remain over the middle term. I happened to browse through the results of the Class V Aryabhatta Mathematics Inter-School Competition, posted on the website of one of the participating institutions. The competition is an annual event which tests the mathematical skills of students in middle school.

Eighty nine schools participated, including all the elite schools of Delhi. One school, Hamdard Public School, Sangam Vihar, fielded 10 Muslim student participants. Of the other 880 students from 88 schools (each school sending in 10 students of Class V), only eight had Muslim names, making a figure of less than one per cent. All told 13 children with Muslim names participated out of 880, making a total of two per cent. From the list of schools, it is evident that these are the elite public schools in the national capital.

The percentage of Muslims in Delhi is about 12 per cent. This implies that Muslim representation has been one sixth of what it could, and perhaps should, have been in a city-wide competition.

Since Muslims of the middle class are not normally covered by reservations, they will lose out to communities in other religions that are so favoured. Marginalisation will only deepen.

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The refrain of late has been that a Muslim middle class is developing, implying that Muslims are beginning to do well in the country. This does not seem to be borne out by this stark statistic. It could have been expected that traces of the so-called Muslim middle class would show up in such data. However, the opposite seems to be true; the touted take off of the Muslim community has not quite begun. Muslims remain marginalized.

It seems that only Muslim-run schools now have Muslim students. That is a double disadvantage. For other schools, it is to deprive them of the diversity that reflects the national composition. For Muslims, it suggests two things. One is that their children do not manage to qualify for such schools. But more pertinently, it is possible that the lack of exposure to Muslims in general and Muslim children, due to underrepresentation, sets up a vicious circle in which schools are reluctant to give Muslim children the benefit of doubt. There could be a more sinister reason to this that regrettably must also be included here: such schools may have an unwritten policy that keeps Muslim children out.

What are the long term implications of this? In case the emerging Muslim middle class is kept out, as suggested by the statistics, Muslims will continue to be disadvantaged for some time to come. Not being represented in this cohort of young children means that they will be underrepresented in the work force in middle class-favoured occupations for at least a score years and more. This means the already existing gap between Muslims and forward communities will expand. In fact, since Muslims of the middle class are not normally covered by reservations, they will lose out to communities in other religions that are so favoured. Marginalisation will only deepen.

Of course, studies indicate that Muslim children are going to school in increasing numbers. It is clear that the schools they go do not figure in the list and they do not go in numbers that reflect the overall proportion of their population, or that of the middle class. Even those that do, trip up, for instance, Hamdard Public School fielded 10 children of which five were absent. The valiant five who turned up could only manage an average score of about 15 per cent, in an exam in which the highest was about 65 per cent and the average was probably around 25-30 per cent.

This implies that the schools Muslim children go to have much catching up to do. This can only further widen the mentioned preexisting gap, setting it in stone for another couple of generations, since only a Sisyphian future awaits this generation of children.

What needs to be done? There is no cause for a call for reservations, even if there is a plausible case for one. It can only be counter-productive and will lead to a dependency syndrome within the Muslim community. In any case, the numbers of Muslims could go up in case the Right to Education Act's promise of inclusion of 25 per cent of children of lower economic backgrounds in schools, including elite schools, is implemented over time. Instead, assuming that the middle class is not a chimera but is indeed forming, then there is a need to revisit policies, more so the covert ones, of schools that have been slow to reflect the social change underway.

The administration needs looking at the figures of Muslim children in schools. A finding of 'Nil' would indicate clearly a policy that keeps them out. Such schools must be encouraged to reform, if not penalized. 'Naming and shaming' is one way, but unlikely to work since such schools can brazenly resort to a communal rationale, knowing that the times are such that they will get away.

Change is therefore easier said than done. At least one school in the middle class locality I live in is reputed to have no Muslim children in its rolls. This cannot be by default. It is by design, one in which the management, staff and education department officials are culpable. Parents from my neighbourhood are equally culpable in turning a blind eye at best and at worst condoning and insisting on the practice.

This is not a stand-alone feature. It is linked to the well-known nation-wide malady of Muslims not finding flats to buy or rent in 'respectable' neighbourhoods - note use of the apostrophes here! Not living in such locales, they don't get to send their children to either middle class or elite schools either. This personal aside is entirely unremarkable in terms of amounting almost to a defining feature of modern India.

The representative lists of Aryabhatta prize competitors can be perused for other clues such as the numbers of children with upper caste names or the absence of names that are usually found in lower castes. Allowance can be made for Sanskritisation by way of which the Hindu majority is being rapidly homogenized towards a telling political outcome. The picture could reveal much more than the backwardness of India's largest minority discussed here. It would tell about the warts on India's complexion that even as enlightened a document as the Constitution has been unable to erase over three score years and as many generations of Indians.

One way out could be to sensitise schools to include more children from the marginalised peoples, without compromising merit. This will be to the betterment in terms of well-rounded growth of their students. After all, much learning in school is from peers. Anecdotally, it is fairly evident that having friends and class fellows of other religious and ethnic backgrounds does make for a secular and tolerant outlook among children. This can be done by parents' bodies interfacing with schools and with the management to oversee the change in the best interests of their wards.

Middle class India is a reality that has surfaced unmistakably over this decade. Anti-corruption and a fair treatment of women have been causes that have seen national level assertiveness from this class. One area calling out for its attention is to make school-going a level playing field.