Could the massacre of the 75 jawans at Dantewada been avoided? Was the state prepared for a strategic counter-offensive such as this by the Naxalites?
When a grim Home Minister, P Chidambaram, faced the cameras on Tuesday morning, his expression said it all. "Something has gone wrong. They seemed to have walked into a camp or a trap set up by the Naxalites. The casualties are quite high and I am deeply shocked," he said.
Later in the day, the prime minister spoke to Chidambaram to discuss how the worst Maoist attack in India's history could have been prevented.
Ajay Sahni of the South Asia Terrorism Portal and an expert on counterinsurgency said the incident points to the neglect of the most basic reform needed by the Indian Police Service and Central Para Military Forces.
For its size and population, Chhattisgarh has the smallest sanctioned IPS cadres. "The state ranks ninth in terms of its size, but stands at 25 when it comes IPS allocation. Worse, there are just 75 of the sanctioned 81 IPS officers available in the state on policing posts, and another 10 on deputation to other departments. At one point, the state did not even have enough SP-ranked officers for all its districts," said Sahni.
The centre has, however, recently sanctioned 130 IPS posts but these are yet to be notified.
Effectively, this means several police posts and camps operate without an officer. Operations are led by havildars or constables -- and this has become a critical point of dispute in joint operations with CPMFs, Sahni explained.
Although the operation was jointly launched by the state police and the CPMF, the basic structural problems of the police in Chhattisgarh is a major impediment for tackling the Naxalite menace. There is a deficit of nearly 50 per cent across the police network in the state, including the Chhattisgarh Armed Force.
While 70 percent of the police stations have been 'fortified', the remaining continue to operate from improvised barracks and often in the most vulnerable areas.
"In the past, the CRPF had refused to send forces for counterinsurgency operations without a local inspector-ranked officer, because most operations where CAF constables accompanied the force, had ended in a disaster," Sahni said.
Last year, the governor had to intervene when the CRPF and the CAF got involved in a dispute, state government sources said. Highly placed state police officers, who served in Dantewada, revealed that the situation boiled down to issues on relating to retaining areas that they had wrested back from the Naxalites, aerial support and infrastructure in form of roads.
According to sources, three or four days back, top police and CPMFs officials got intelligence inputs that Naxalites were holding training camps in the forest. The laid out a battle plan to flush them out and went on a longrange patrol on Tuesday.
On their way back, they took the same route -- their first big mistake -- and were attacked by the 1,000 armed Naxalite cadres.
"If we'd had air support, we could have beaten them (the Naxalites) back. They have killed 75 of our colleagues, have taken away the weapons and we have been unable to arrest a single person. What we need is the armoured version of the Mi-17," top police officials said over the telephone from Chhattisgarh.
The attack took place in a 45-km heavily forested stretch where the Union cabinet secretary, during a visit to Raipur two years ago, had agreed to build a road. "Not even 500 m of road exists today. If there had been one, maybe we would have seen the landmines," said the official bitterly.
In Delhi, home ministry sources said the government is considering deploying air assets.