GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS combed the whole area for a youth who could read and write well, was articulate and had other rare skills. They picked Vijay, then in his teens, because they recognized him as the potential leader they were looking for. He was sent to boarding school.

After a few years he went on to the city, where he lived with others as an equal -- an amazing experience for someone brought up in a village as a Harijan, an untouchable. He could find lodgings everywhere, instead of being confined to a Harijan colony. When the heat made him thirsty, he could drink from water fountains the government had made accessible to all -- regardless of caste. He ate at the same table as high-caste townspeople. He entered their houses and could even touch them without making them feel unclean.

He was much envied on his return home when the headman found him a job as forest guard. But it entailed being away from the village and the headman had insisted that there was no other work close by. The untouchables whispered that he did not want Vijay stirring up trouble in the villages he controlled.

Vijay declined the offer of a job, disappeared for a while, and then returned with a small supply of medicines. He would visit the neighboring villages, treating the sick, writing letters for the illiterate. Applications and complaints to the government became his specialty. He began to acquire a following.

The high-caste Brahmins and Rajputs thought they saw through his game. They denounced him for practicing medicine illegally -- something done in every village -- and, with the headman's support, had him arrested. But the government official who came to investigate exonerated Vijay, and encouraged him to become a teacher -- a position of natural leadership in the villages.

Vijay set up a school in a distant village, where high-caste hostility to an untouchable "guru" might be less. At first the Rajputs were glad that their children were leaning to read and write. Then they decided that the risk was too great. Their children, instead of commanding an untouchable, would learn to obey him. Vijay was asked to leave, politely. When he refused, the Rajputs besieged the schoolhouse for four days, stoned him whenever he came out and finally drove him away.

Back at home again, he became involved in a project which threatened high-caste supremacy even more. From time to time the government launched public works projects, such as roadbuilding, to provide employment for the landless untouchables. By the time the government funds reached the laborers, a major portion would often be "eaten up," as they say here. Corrupt officials grab their share. A rich landlord acts as contractor, hires and supervises the workers, and often swindles them of their wages. Vijay helped to set up a cooperative to cut out these middlemen.

Any attempt to organize Harijans was seen by the Brahmins and Rajputs as a threat to their dominant position in the villagaes. Government officials had already encouraged the Harijans to petition for a redrawing of electoral boundaries, so that an untouchable would stand a better chance of being elected headman. The landlords decided that Vijay's cooperative must not be allowed to succeed.

They spread a rumor that he had pocketed government funds. No one doubted the truth of the story. "After all," the villagers said, "everybody does it." The cooperative broke up in quarrels and confusion.

Vijay didn't give up. Before the untouchables would dare to work toward the idea of having a Harijan headman, they had to be taught their rights. Vijay took the village Brahmins to court for denying the untouchables access to the temple and for enclosing public grazing lands -- and the untouchables won. They are now admitted into the temple, but when Vijay's wife went to cut grass for the cattle on common land, she was again chased off by a Brahmin who said it belonged to him. Next time Vijay went with her. The landlord threatened them with a stick and they retreated. "I didn't want my wife to get hurt," he told me later. Vijay returned to remind the Brahmin about the court order. The court had exceeded its authority, the landlord retorted. "What can you do?" he added contemptuously. "If you dare, go ahead." Vijay retreated again.

He was eager to be photographed, but he begged me not to name village or people, and I have changed all the names in these columns. The newspapers had recently reported the mass murder of two dozen Harijans who had tried to stand up for their rights. No newspapers come to our village, but bad news travels fast. And yet Vijay was not despondent. The Brahmin headman had become more circumspect and had even canceled his boycott of the village festival, Vijay said, apparently because a new government project to sort out village grievances was to be announced soon. Vijay had been asked to help. He was a big man now.

Soon the eyes of the whole region were on our village. High officials had set up a "law camp" on the meadow to hear the villagers' complaimts. Thousands of highlanders had trudged for days over the mountains to attend this "Festival of Justice." Indira Gandhi herself -- they called her "Mother" -- was widely rumored to have taken an interest in the experiment.

Vijay, who had struggled for years to organize his fellow untouchables, now came into his own. Because he was the only educated Harijan in the area, an official handed him a bullhorn to welcome the exalted guests. From that moment he was recognized by the crowd as the most important local personage there. The bullhorn became his badge of high office, though no one quite knew what the office was.

The high-caste headmen quickly saw the threat to their own standing, and tried to snatch the shiny contraption from him. But with the dignitaries watching, they could hardly lay violent hands on Vijay. He blandly introduced the haughty headmen to the visitors, explained local conditions and picked petitioners out of the throng to present their cases. The villagers could not always understand the strangers. Vijay, acting as translator, was transformed into an official spokesman. Soon he was addressing the visitors on behalf of his people, complaining about the heartlessness of local bureaucrats, hinting at their excesses, at bribery, corruption, extortion.

Such hints were enough to make the small fry tremble with fear. The judge who came from the city was known to be a firm upholder of the law. The two ministers from the state capital held the careers of these minor functionaries in their hands. They could be transferred to an even remoter district, or lose their jobs altogether. Every now and again one of them would discreetly approach Vijay and entreat him not to mention his name. If Vijay had heard of any complaint against him, would he kindly tell him privately and the matter would be put right. Please.

Some of these men, now so meek, had long made the highlanders' lives unbearable. Worst of all, the villagers told me, were the patwaris, the revenue police at the very bottom of the official hierarchy. In an area where land is the only source of wealth, they wield immense power because they keep the records. Because ownership disputes are endemic, the patwari can make a man rich or a pauper with a single stroke of the pen, by altering the record. He will usually favor his own high caste against the untouchables. Only the rich can bribe him. The poor can rarely sue.

In the absence of a regular police force, the patwari also functions as policeman. The villagers, who regard his authority as awesome, see him about once a month. He lives in town, and on visits to the village stays usually with the richest landlord. His host is often involved in the disputes the patwari is "investigating," sometimes through relatives and friends who form the upper crust. To the villagers, the patwari, this lowest form of government life, is the highest immediate authority. To them, he is the government.

At the other end of the scale are the magistrates, usually incorruptible civil servants, presiding over an area far too large for them to ensure that their own standards are followed everywhere. Both the highest and the lowest were at the law camp, and each government department set up its own "complaints desk" to register the grievances that had accumulated over the years.

In one village the government had given land to the untouchables, then its own forestry department planted it with trees. When the Harijans protested, the Brahmins burned down their shacks. In another village, high- caste Rajputs let loose their cattle in the fields of about 20 Harijan families, and then drove them from land and huts. In both cases the patwaris abetted the high-caste farmers.

The landlords have in fact been reacting against a new threat to their privileged way of life. Their fear is that the distribution of government land to untouchables will deprive them of the cheap labor on which they have always relied.

All petitioners were told that their complaints would be promptly investigated. Our village drummer, whose land had been appropriated by a rich landlord, described his case to a courteous official. The state's planning minister promised new plans and funds to develop the region. The law minister vowed that injustice would be rooted out.

Some years ago when Indira Gandhi lost the election, the local headmen deserted her Congress Party overnight and mocked the Harijans: "You see! We've thrown her out because she kept giving you land. The party's over." All 40 or 50 headmen in our district are high-caste Brahmins or Rajputs, although untouchables make up 40 percent of the population. The constituencies had been gerrymandered to ensure high-caste majorities everywhere.

But now the government has redrawn the boundaries of our village, and those of several neighboring communities, to allow for a Harijan majority. As the gathering on the meadow dispersed, the untouchables whispered, "Let's elect Vijay as headman . . ."

Vijay was walking on air.

As soon as the lookout saw the policeman approaching the village, the men melted into the hills. The patwari had repeatedly threatened to arrest the villagers who had complained to officials from the city about local corruption. But since this was not an indictable offense, the patwari played on the villagers a trick said to be common in these parts.

First, he and the headman put pressure on a man from another village to lodge an official complaint. This man accused Vijay and half a dozen of his associates of conspiring to cause a breach of the peace. Then the patwari arrived from the district headquarters with a summons. But by making themselves scarce at the first sign of his arrival, the accused men had played into his hands.

For the summons merely required them to appear before a law official. Normally they would have been bound over on good behavior. In the village itself the patwari said nothing about the summons, but back at headquarters he told a story about the men "refusing to accept it." He knew that the next step would inevitably be a warrant for their arrest.

When he returned to the village to take them in, they disappeared once again. Back at headquarters, the patwari said that they had been "evading arrest," a crime for which they could be severely punished. He returned again to the village, this time with a whole platoon of police.

So far everything had gone according to plan. But on this occasion the social worker happened to be visiting the village from town. He had helped to organize the "law camp" at which the villagers had aired their grievances to officials. Now he tried to shield them from the inevitable retribution. First, he persuaded the men to come out from hiding. Then he gave the patwari his personal guarantee that they would be brought before the magistrate for the hearing two days later. The policeman wouldn't hear of it. He wanted his pound of flesh.

The headman also wanted them arrested, but with the added refinement of handcuffs. Vijay and the untouchables posed a threat to his reelection, but their challenge might be warded off if they were to be paraded as vicious criminals in the villages on the way to town. Their humiliation would emphasize his power to crush all who dared to defy him. In this region to be seen in handcuffs marks a man for life. His guilt, or disgrace, is automatically assumed. Vijay would be seen as helpless to protect himself, let alone those who might vote for him. As a politician he would be finished.

But there was more to it than that. The man originally picked to make the complaint against Vijay came himself from a village of untouchables. This was the very village which had been lately joined with ours in the boundary review. The combined vote from the two would be sufficient to defeat the high-caste headman. So the accusation against Vijay had also been calculated to sow dissension between the two villages and destroy their new-fledged alliance.

In our own village the Brahmins had, for once, made common cause with the untouchables to unseat the headman and elect Vijay. They had come to believe that a new headman, even an untouchable, was to be preferred to the present incumbent who had always discriminated against our village. For the Brahmins there was a good deal of prestige, as well as material profit, to be gained from having the only untouchable headman in the region. The government would hold the village up as an example of progress and provide generous subsidies for rural development.

Vijay's enemies had tried to revive the discord between the Brahmins and the untouchables. They had even sent the authorities a forged letter in his name denouncing the most influential Brahmins in our village for harrassing the untouchables. Their purpose was to make the Brahmins believe that Vijay was secretly maneuvering against them and would abandon them as soon as they had served his purpose. The arrest of Vijay would reinforce their misgivings.

Vijay and his associates surrendered, as the social worker had promised, and they managed to avoid the handcuffs. They had bribed the patwari with borrowed money.

The social worker then hastened back to the city and frantically pulled strings. In the end he succeeded. A judge phoned the district headquarters demanding to see all the relevant papers. The police thought it best to let the storm blow over. Vijay and his friends were released on bail.

It was the Brahmins who offered themselves as surety for the untouchables. Instead of splintering the village's newfound unity, persecution had reinforced it.