The deadly chain of violence set off in Assam over the past few days the handiwork of the United Liberation Front of Asom, by all accounts poses challenges for the peace process under way to end insurgency in the State. In the classic terrorist tradition, ULFA has blamed state intelligence agencies for the violence against civilians including the June 9 explosion in Guwahati that left five persons, mostly vegetable vendors, dead. But it owned up the attacks on vital oil installations. Serial blasts have been ULFA's trademark tactic. Coming as they do ahead of talks scheduled for June 22, they can only be seen as holding a gun to the Government's head. Significantly, the violence started soon after the Union Home Secretary set the date for the talks and conveyed it to the People's Consultative Group (PCG), the team of interlocutors deployed by ULFA in September 2005 to work out a mutually acceptable peace process. The dialogue between the Centre and the PCG was expected to lead to a bilateral ceasefire agreement however reluctant ULFA has traditionally been to be drawn into one leading to direct talks. The previous rounds, held in October 2005 and in February 2006, created a somewhat optimistic atmosphere. ULFA was supposed to be looking forward to the next round while repeatedly pressing its demand for the release of five high-ranking insurgent leaders in government custody making it sound like a precondition for talks. Despite the provocations, the Government has confirmed that the June 22 round will be held. The violence, however, has raised new questions about the secessionist outfit's sincerity of purpose as well as its ability to keep agents provocateurs within its ranks reined in. One factor that might have provoked ULFA to demonstrate its ability to strike terror and kill is a survey attributed to the PCG, which showed that less than one per cent of the people of Assam now support ULFA and its cause.

Any opportunity to break the spiral of violence in northeastern India is welcome. The latest terror strikes do not, in any way, detract from the larger reality: ordinary people have become weary of the insurgencies, the senseless killings and destruction of property; and the state clearly has the upper hand and has no reason to give in to tactics of violence and intimidation. New Delhi should play a steady hand, adopting a principled and consistent line while dealing with the panoply of regional outfits (one recent count put the number at over a hundred, with some 30 of them engaged in insurgency). Just as there can be no giving in to terror tactics, there must be no succumbing to efforts to sabotage the peace process. On its part, the Congress-led Government of Assam needs to end complacency: the latest terror strikes speak to a failure of intelligence and a lowering of guard.