For hours before that, a truckload of Naxals, men and women, had surrounded the camp, located in a busy market. By 4 pm, they were ready.
It was just another Monday evening for the jawans. Some of them were cooking dinner, others were enjoying a cup of tea. Outside, the Naxals were approaching - some on motorcycles, others in a car, most of them packed into a truck.
The jawans suddenly heard a loud explosion. From across the low walls of the camp, petrol bombs and grenades landed with fury. The policemen inside stood little chance.
Twenty four policemen died, some of them burnt inside their tents. Another seven were injured. That left a handful to combat the nearly hundred Naxals, who burst in with sophisticated firearms and separated the camp with bullets.
West Bengal's senior-most cop, Bhupinder Singh, who visited the disaster zone on Tuesday, admitted that the camp's location made it inherently vulnerable. The shops around made it impossible to place security outside the camp. And when the attack began, the policemen were worried about firing back, and hurting shoppers in the crossfire.
The Naxals raided the armory in the camp. Forty guns have been reported missing.
A jawan who survived says the camp was caught so completely off-guard that there was little chance of putting up a real fight. "Everyone panicked...I could not take it...I climbed a wall and escaped," he said to NDTV, visibly shaken hours after the assault. (Watch: Bengal attack: Jawan recounts the horror)
In Delhi, Home Minister P Chidambaram admitted that the attack showed "indications of failure in some aspects." He added that "only a thorough review will reveal how the police camp with adequate strength was overrun, when there was day light, by the CPI (Maoist)." (Read: Chidambaram's statement on Midnapore attack)
But sources tell NDTV that privately, a furious Chidambaram has minced no words with the Bengal state government. The minister reportedly said the jawans were acting as if they were on a picnic; that they had let their guard down by allowing locals to use their camp's toilet. The jawans at the camp were also not in regular touch with their headquarters. The message from the union to the state government: figure out how to protect these camps better.
Shilda, where the camp was located, is 75 kilometres from Midnapore town. Police reinforcements from Binpur and Belpahari, 8-10 kilometres away, reached the spot three hours after the attack. The security forces had to trek through forests to avoid landmines planted by the Naxals.
The state police says that local intelligence networks in Naxal areas are virtually non-existent. Despite an afternoon spent by Naxals readying for the attack, just feet away, the jawans got no tip-off.
Maoist leader Kishenji has claimed responsibility for the attack.
"We have attacked the camp and this is our answer to Chidambaram's 'Operation Green Hunt' and unless the Centre stops this inhuman military operation we are going to answer this way only," Kishenji said from an undisclosed location.
In his statement on Tuesday, Chidambaram hit out at intellectual sympathisers of Maoists. "I would like to hear the voices of condemnation of those who have, erroneously, extended intellectual and material support to the CPI (Maoist)."
According to sources, this is why the Midnapore incident happened:
- Key security procedures were not followed
- Looked like the jawans were on a picnic, there were no security checks at the camp
- Locals had easy access, used camp toilets regularly
- There wasn't constant communication between jawans, HQ
- Jawans had arms, could have protected camp better