The massacre of 76 Indian policemen by Maoists in the deadliest ever attack by the left-wing rebels could spark a military response that experts fear would only lead to more violence.
The government has vowed to avenge Tuesday's annihilation of a police platoon in Chhattisgarh state and for the first time hinted it may consider using the military against the increasingly lethal insurgency.
"At present there is no mandate to use the air force but if necessary we will have to re-visit the mandate and make some changes," Home Minister P. Chidambaram announced, grim-faced after meeting surviving policemen.
India used its military against Sikh guerrillas in Punjab state in the 1980s and until recently combat troops patrolled in Kashmir, but it always avoided using such force against the Maoists, who are active across the north and east.
Now the Chhattisgarh massacre has tested patience to the limit.
It was the sixth in a series of attacks by the outlawed Maoists that have left nearly 250 men in uniform dead since March 2007.
"If India uses the military then a lesser number of security personnel will die," said Deepankar Banerjee, director of the Delhi-based Institute of Peace and Conflict, a privately run think-tank.
"But civilian casualties will be three to five times more than those dying today and this scale of violence will increase and compound the problem," predicted Banerjee, a former army major general.
The insurgency, which started as a peasant uprising in 1967, has been identified by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as the number one threat to India's internal security.
India's million-plus military is divided on the tactics to be used against the Maoists, who in the past three years have assassinated an MP, staged a mass prison break for 300 of their jailed comrades and held entire trains hostage.
The Counter-terrorism and Jungle Warfare College, which is backed by the defence ministry, has called for the maximum use of force against the rebels, whose strength is variously estimated at between 10,000 and 20,000.
"These insurgents will come to talks only if their military arm is twisted," college director Basant Kumar Ponwar told AFP, but he warned New Delhi must find other strategies to win over populations in Maoist-affected regions.
In contrast, the Indian air force, which refuses to install weapons on helicopters that ferry injured policemen, has urged the government to keep the military out of the conflict.
"The military -- the army, navy and air force -- are trained for lethal operations; maximum lethality," air force chief P.V. Naik said, opposing military strikes against the elusive Maoists.
"The weapons we have are meant for the enemy across the border," he said. "For the present moment, we must leave it to the paramilitary forces because they are trained to undertake these operations."