Philimon Baske stares distantly at the expanse ahead of him. Around 1,800-acre land has been home to him and his people for as long as he knows.
The president of the Shahebganj-Bagda Farm Bhumi Uddhar Songram Committee, Philimon also bears the burden of a great responsibility – he must bring justice for his people. He and the other Santals in Gobindaganj upazila of Gaibandha district are under siege. Their ancestral land has been chosen as the spot for the latest export processing zone.
Five years ago, police and workers of the Rangpur Sugar Mills, the establishment located on the Santal land, swooped on protesting Santals who were trying to save their land from being taken. The ensuing clash led to the killing of three Santals.
Since then, the ethnic community has marked 6 November with demonstrations. They have repeatedly called for justice over the killings, but the demands have gone unheeded.
Their claim on the land has also been brushed aside.
The idea of rehabilitation has been mooted, but the Santals reject this.
"We are not used to living in brick homes or living in colonies. The government knows this. We want to stay on our land. It is ours. We own this," Philimon declares.
The silent rebellion
The entry to these hallowed Santal lands is one narrow dirt road which snakes through golden and green paddy fields.
There's nothing declaring who dwells on this land, but there are a few markers.
It could be the odd location of a house made entirely out of sheets of corrugated steel jutting out of the field and breaking the monotony of the green expanse.
It could also be the men carrying bows and arrows, the Santals' traditional hunting – and fighting – tools.
A dead giveaway, however, are the posters.
Almost each of the Santal homes sport a poster, which tells of the ills committed against the ethnic community and invites readers to join the protests against this injustice.
These tin-homes, importantly, are not the dwelling of choice.
"We always had large trees surrounding our homesteads. But they came and tore all the trees down. Now we have no shade," Shukpal Hemron, 84, says.
There's no anger in his slightly, trembling voice; only pain.
"When it is winter, it is too cold to stay still. When it is hot, you cannot stay inside the house.
"When the prime minister said no land should lie idle, we toiled day and night. Our entire history has been feeding people. Now, our backs are breaking. How long can we remain standing?" he asks.
Can Hemron see a better life elsewhere? No, he shrugs his head, the sudden, subtle gesture of defiance reinvigorating him.
"This world is no longer for me. Death is better than living like this," he says.
"We were zamindars once. Our forefathers gave us this land. Are their souls at rest now? Their souls are crying. We will die for this land."
Death over dishonour is something familiar to the Santals. The Santal Rebellion of 1855, when the community took up its bows and arrows against the mightier British forces and lost, has been etched into the tribe's history. It has also shaped their culture, while becoming an everlasting pool of pride.
The Santals would fight once more during the Liberation War, when they rained down arrows on Pakistani forces stationed in Rangpur cantonment.
In an article penned by English writer Charles Dickson almost two centuries ago, he waxed lyrical about the honour of the Santal people. He wrote that while the Santal used poisoned arrows when hunting, they would never do so against their foes.
The Santals were said to have taken up arms once again on 6 November 2014. This account, however, is disputed. The main story goes back much earlier.
In 1962, 1,840 acres of land possessed by local Santals and Bangalees were acquired to set up the Rangpur Sugar Mills at Gobindaganj's Bagda area.
As per the agreement, the land was meant for sugarcane cultivation. Otherwise, the land would be returned to the local owners with proper compensation.
However, after the sugar mill was shut down in 2004, the land was leased to influential people who started cultivating other crops such as rice, wheat, mustard, maize and tobacco.
When the Santals came to learn about the violation of the agreement, they reportedly built houses there.
When the affected locals started protesting, a false case was filed against them.
On 6 November 2016, the Santals alleged that the police, local administration, local influential people and mill staff attacked to evict them.
Into the lair
Asking some of the Santal men about the cases against them, one can almost be forgiven for thinking he is surrounded by criminals.
Shukpal Hemron has seven cases against him, including for looting and vandalism. Philimon has nine cases.
Majhi Hemron, 70, has three cases against him. Wearing thick glasses, he laughs when asked about the cases. He points to the bullet wounds on his arm and his abdomen.
"I don't remember the year it happened. But it was during a protest. Police stopped us and asked us to disperse. Before we could do so, we heard shots being fired. I got shot and fell. My friend Tomas rescued me.
"If I had my bow, I would have shot back. I would have to. What could I do? I would have to find a way to be safe," he says.
Asked about the cases against him, he again breaks into a grin, "They said I mugged a police officer of his weapon. Can you imagine that? Also, the day they said I did it, I was in jail."
This disclosure brings guffaws from the surrounding men and women.
The trials are still ongoing and these men have to attend the hearings at the Gaibandha court.
At this point Shukpal interjects. "We don't ever fight amongst ourselves. We all know which parcel of land belongs to whom. We shouldn't have to fight for our own land."
As the sun beats down on the gathering, Philimon ushers everyone towards the Santal village nearby. The village is in undisputed lands. Mud homes, ponds, and ample shade make the entire village a very inviting place.
This is how the Santal live and want to live. But for now that seems to be a dream.
The Santal men and women soon return to cultivate their land. They have not been stopped from doing so in a while. More houses have gone up, but the bulldozers haven't arrived either.
The community, however, believe it is only a matter of time. This, perhaps, is the silence before the storm.