THE GOVERNMENT had abolished slavery, Vijay whispered to his fellow untouchables, and all bonded laborers would henceforth be free. The richer farmers denied the rumor. He was trying to stir up the untouchables again, they said, but he would fail. The headman, whose own fields were worked by bonded labor, said he had heard nothing from the government. But Vijay had an ally among the landlords.

The other untouchables warned him against trusting the high-caste Rajput, but Vijay was sure he could rely on Ram Singh. Hadn't they grown up together? Ram would never eat food touched by Vijay, but at least he hadn't beaten him when they were children or expected him to work for nothing when they grew up.

When Vijay came back from the government school, the only educated untouchable in the area, the landlords recognized him as a threat to their power and tried to intimidate him. But Ram Singh was impressed by his accounts of government plans to emancipate the outcasts. Ram hoped to become headman himself one day. He would need the good will of government officials who were supposed to see that untouchables got their rights. He took Vijay's side.

About a third of the 60 or so families in the village were untouchables, the landless laborer caste which had for centuries served the high-caste Rajputs and the Brahmin priests. There was no work to be had except from the landlords, who paid a pittance. They lived from hand to mouth, perpetually in debt, segregated on the lower slope.

The only way out was for one man in the family, usually a younger son, to become "bonded." He would work for the farmer without pay, just two meals a day and some clothes, until he had worked off the family debt. He rarely succeeded. Either the family borrowed more, or the farmer -- who kept the accounts -- would claim that the bondsman's labor hadn't even paid the interest on the loan. The laborer, illiterate, couldn't argue. Often the debt would pass from father to son. So would the bondage.

In the mid-'70s, long before I came to the village, the government canceled all such debts. But the headman kept the news to himself. Vijay asked him repeatedly about the new law, but to no avail. Ram Singh, with his eye on the headman's post, released his own bondsmen. He told the other landlords of the three-year prison terms and the huge fines the new law imposed on bonded labour masters. The farmers began to notice.

A canny Brahmin landlord, Joshi, joined the Vijay-Ram alliance. He had applied for a government contract to build an irrigation canal, and thought this was a way to get it. Then Vijay recruited a couple of youths who, chafing under the stern rule of the village elders, were ready to defy the headman.

The all-caste group set out on a march through the hills to tell the untouchables about the new law. The landlords tried to keep them out of the villages, but the marchers found shelter among the outcasts on the lower slopes. The bondsmen were curious, but distrustful. Where was the assurance, they asked, that the government would protect them if they deserted their masters? The marchers gave them government leaflets listing the laborers' rights and their masters' obligations, but they couldn't read.

The landlords threatened to break the agitators' bones. The marchers held meetings in the villages secretly to protect the bondsmen from the landlords' anger. Ram Singh, tall and sturdy, made sure that his fellow Rajputs did not invade the meetings.

In one village, a gang of Rajputs forced its way into a meeting held at dead of night. "You swore a solemn oath to repay our loans," the gang leader reminded the untouchables. "No government can annul your debt. If you default, the gods will send calamities to punish you and your families." They threatened the untouchables with misfortune, disease, even death.

Ram Singh thundered back that it was the landlords who would be punished, by the government. Vijay told the untouchables that they were free men, and must tell the authorities of any attempt to hold them in bondage.

The bondsmen were bewildered. The authorities were far away, and officials hardly ever set foot in the village. But the landlords were on the spot. Their power, unchallenged for centuries, rested on tradition, religion, and sheer force.

"Let's wait and see," the untouchables said.

The men who had been freed from bondage were beside themselves with joy. Not only had the government wiped out the landless laborers' debts so that they would no longer be enslaved by their landlords, but it had promised them land of their own. Home- brewed liquor flowed freely. For several days no one did any work.

Now they would grow their own food in their own fields as free men. They would never again be bonded to the rich farmers.

The landlords' revenge was swift. While the bondsmen waited for land, they asked the farmers for work to tide them over. None was available. The farmers had hired men from neighboring villages.

The newly free bondsmen, hungry and dejected, rounded on Vijay. He had incited them to desert their masters on the strength of government promises, but they couldn't eat promises. "We were fools to listen to you," they said.

But government oficials had anticipated the landlords' reaction. They knew how long it took to sort out conflicting land-ownership claims. In the meantime, a public works project would provide employment. A road would be built through the mountains to link the villages with the outside world. Local contractors would recruit local labor and supervise it.

No one knew who had started the rumor about Vijay's influence with the officials. Now the landlords fawned on him. Would he put in a good word for them? One farmer offered to split the profit with Vijay if he helped to get him the contract; another, to make him foreman. Among themselves, the landlords grumbled that it was no longer enough to bribe officials. They had to have the goodwill of an untouchable, and an agitator at that. What was the world coming to?

His friend Ram Singh let it be known that, thanks to Vijay, the contract was as good as in his pocket. He wanted to build Vijay up in the eyes of the village. When the time came to choose a new headman, the untouchables would listen to Vijay and give their votes to his high-caste friend.

Ram Singh did get the contract, but that was because he had offered the biggest bribe. He put Vijay in charge of the laborers, the first time an untouchable had been given so much responsibility. Vijay also acted as the paymaster. The government contract laid down a daily wage of 8 rupees (about $1), but Ram Singh ordered Vijay to keep a third of that back.

The laborers assumed that Vijay was getting some of the money due to them. They complained, but his prestige grew even more. No untouchable had ever shared a contractor's ill-gotten gains.

They didn't know that Vijay had tried to curb Ram's greed. He reminded the contractor that this was only the first segment of the road: the long-term contracts were yet to be awarded. He told him -- not altogether truthfully -- that he had heard the laborers talk of forming a cooperative and applying for the contract themselves.

It sounded like a threat. Ram began to distrust Vijay. He had raised him up from nothing, and now his success had gone to his head. Could Vijay be fool enough, he wondered, to see himself as a future headman? An untouchable?

It was Vijay who had suggested to the laborers that they should form a cooperative. They too thought his new authority had gone to his head. The landlords would never allow it, they said. Where would the coop find the money for the bribes needed to get the contract? Or to buy the tools which Ram now provided?

No money was needed, Vijay assured them. Officials who favored cooperatives would award them the contract. The laborers would get no pay until a substantial part of the work had been completed, but they wouldn't go hungry. He had already talked to some merchants who would let them have rice, lentils and salt on credit -- if they got the contract.

True, they had no picks or shovels, he conceded. They would borrow them from other villages. If need be, they would scratch the ground with their nails, but they would do the work and get the wages that were rightfully theirs.

He wrote the laborers' names on a scrap of paper torn from an exercise book. They added their thumbprints. Vijay took the list to town. An official affixed a stamp. The cooperative was in business.

The roadbuilders had received no pay for several months. When the government money finally came, they still got nothing. First the contractors had cheated them, they complained, and now the cooperative was doing the same -- the cooperative which was supposed to have done away with cheating.

In vain did Vijay explain that he had used the money to pay for their food. The drought was getting worse. Prices were rising. Merchants were hoarding rice. But the grain supply, paid for in advance with the money Vijay had withheld, was assured.

They wouldn't listen to him. They wanted their pay, and they wanted it now.

The landlords were saying that Vijay had paid more money to the rice merchants than the grain was worth, and that the shopkeepers had quietly slipped some of it back to him. The landlords had it in for Vijay, whom they held responsible for liberating the laborers from bondage.The former bondsmen still believed their former masters. A relationship of trust and dependence built up over centuries is not wiped out in one day.

The landlords' objective was to destroy the cooperative, to compel the laborers to come back, cap in hand, begging for loans. In time they would become bonded again.

Vijay went from hut to hut, urging the laborers to keep the cooperative going. The authorities, he told them, wanted it to survive, and would not fail to reward them. If the government really wanted to help them, they retorted, it should give them the land they had been promised.

Vijay wrote out a formal application for land on behalf of each family. The heads of families put their thumbprints on the documents, and he took the sheaf of papers to town.

The landlords predicted that nothing would come of it, but the laborers gave Vijay the benefit of the doubt. The wait proved to be a long one. They began to lose hope, and some of the weaker spirits swung back to the landlords side -- but Vijay's luck held.

The official who came to the village made straight for Vijay's hut, questioned him closely about local conditons and ostentatiously ignored the landlords. He accepted food and drink from Vijay's hand, and slept on his porch while the sun was high. a high- caste brahim eating and resting in the hut of an untouchable. The laborers took heart.

Almost every untouchable family was allocated a piece of land -- a small piece, about an acre. The Brahim and Rajput landlords told the official that the fields were not his to give. It was common land, used for grazing by the whole village.

It hadn't been used by the "whole" village, he countered, because the untouchables had no cattle. It was government land, illegally appropriated by the landlords, and the deeds would now be given to the new owners.

The roadbuilding contract was not renewed. The government had provided funds only while the drought lasted, to avert starvation. When the rains came, the Public Works Department diverted its limited resources to a more needy area.

Vijay tried to find other work for the cooperative, but the only employment available was in the landlords' fields. The landlords blacklisted all the families which had joined the cooperative, just as they had previously blacklisted the laborers who had refused to remain in bondage. The cooperative, unable to feed its members or to give them work, slowly disintegrated.

But it had remained afloat long enough to keep the laborers from slipping back into bondage during the worst of the drought. In other villages, many untouchables had been rebonded, and it was years before the government managed to free them again. In Vijay's village, conscious of the new strength and status that land ownership gave them, the untouchables began to challenge the high castes for political power.