A GOVERNMENT OFFICER had been driven out of the village, said an official complaint to the police, after being viciously assaulted by a dozen men during the night. His assailants had also robbed him, although he had come to the village to help them. The villagers denied the charge, but his account was supported in court by witnesses and by documentary evidence.

Mr. Jagdish had come to the village several times to arrange the distribution of government largesse to the poorest and most deserving of its inhabitants, former serfs who had been freed from bondage only recently. They had little land or other property from which they could have made a living. The Bonded Labor Rehabilitation Department for which Mr. Jagdish worked in the district center had devised a program to help them. The villagers would be given cows, sell the milk and live on the proceeds.

On the night in question, said the complaint, a "drunk and disorderly" group of men had forced their way into the hut in which Mr. Jagdish was interviewing potential recipients of government aid, subjected him to verbal abuse and then committed assault and battery. They had been sent there by Vijay, a low-caste Harijan who purported to be the leader of the village untouchables.

The complainant had been slapped, prodded with sticks, dragged out of the hut and ejected from the village, to the accompaniment of loud abuse directed against the authorities. The villagers had accused the government, in the person of Mr. Jagdish, of holding back the funds intended for former bonded laborers. They had then proceeded to rob him of 600 rupees (about $60). It had been, said the complaint, a wholly unprovoked attack on a government official visiting the village in the line of duty, and it must be severely punished if a repetition was to be avoided.

The two men called by Mr. Jagdish testified that he had made every attempt to seek out those villagers who could make the best use of the cattle to be distributed. His efforts were resented by some villagers, who claimed that he was giving the animals to the rich rather than the poor. Vijay had tried to make political capital out of these rumors, and he had let it be known that the high-caste Brahmins stood to gain more from the project than the untouchables whom it was designed to help.

The two witnesses confirmed Mr. Jagdish's account in every detail. They were sure that the money taken from him amounted to 600 rupees, because they had seen Vijay count the notes. Written depositions taken from several villagers were also introduced as evidence. Their statements were unsigned, because the men were illiterate, but they had affixed their thumbprints on the documents.

Vijay admitted that he had insulted Mr. Jagdish. The official had demanded a bribe for every cow he had given to a villager, with one exception: After the incident, he gave two cows to the men who promised to support his story. As for the depositions, the illiterate villagers had indeed put their thumbprints on the affidavits -- but they had been told that these were applications for government aid.

The villagers explained that they had submitted to Mr. Jagdish's exactions because his fellow officials would have rejected any complaints against him. He had always made sure that there were no witnesses when he took bribes. He had done so again on the night of the disturbance, when he collected a total of 600 rupees. On his visits to the village he had always demanded liquor, they said, and the company of several women to entertain him. On this occasion, however, he had got so drunk that he tried to stub out his cigarettes on the girls' arms and faces. It was their cries that had led Vijay and the other men to break down the door. They had rescued the women, but it was not true that they had assaulted Mr. Jagdish. They had hardly touched him.

The judge found the evidence of both sides unsatisfactory. Mr. Jagdish denied that he had taken bribes. How, then, did he come to have 600 rupees on him, the judge asked. It was his salary, Mr. Jagdish said. But didn't the alleged robbery occur nearly a month after he had received his salary? Why was it still intact? What had he lived on in the meantime?

The villagers were unable to prove that he had taken bribes, but he was unable to account for the money in his possession. The judge concluded that if he had taken no bribes, then he could not have had all that cash on his person. This meant that he could not have been robbed of something he did not have.

Mr. Jagdish's complaint against the villagers was dismissed. He was transferred to another district, and Vijay and his followers celebrated their victory with a sumptuous feast. No one knew where the money for it had come from.