The wave of bomb explosions in India this weekend was the most direct confrontation yet between the government of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and militant Sikhs. More than 30 bomb blasts rocked New Delhi, and the adjacent states of Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh in a 14-hour period beginning Friday night.
As troops in battle gear maintained their vigil in New Delhi, sealing the capital off, there were fears of a Hindu backlash over the spat of bombs.
The violence in New Delhi coincided with a bitter battle over the leadership of the Sikh community and with the trial, which opens here today, of the men accused of assasinating Prime Minister Indira Gandhi last October.
The escalating violence was not unexpected, intelligence sources say, though it was clear that the authorities were unprepared for its devastation and scope.
Security forces continued their sweep through the north of India Sunday in an effort to find Sikh extremists who may have been responsible for the blasts, which left at least 86 people dead and hundreds injured. Nearly 1,500 suspected extremists have been arrested.
The weekend's violence was certainly the most dramatic and best coordinated act of the Sikh extremists since they were forced out of the Golden Temple in Amritsar last June. The Sikh militants from the Punjab favor an independent Sikh state.
They struck with precision timing in their terror campaign, attacking mostly bus and train stations and public parks. Within two hours on Friday evening, 20 bombs had gone off. In all cases, the pattern was the same: Lethal timing devices were hidden inside transistor radios, and placed aboard buses ridden by the poor, and in the slum areas on New Delhi's outskirts. The bombs were detonated when the radios were turned on by those who found them.
The latest violence came on the heels of cautious efforts by Mr. Gandhi to reach an agreement on the Punjab with the traditional leaders of the Sikh political party, the Akali Dal.
Hopes of a settlement appeared dashed two weeks ago, when the father of the late Sikh militant leader, Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, killed in the Golden Temple assault, began a concerted effort to wrest the leadership of the Sikh movement from its more moderate men.
As the smoke continued engulfing targets of the weekend bomb blasts, one of their first political casualties was the moderate Sikh leader, Harchand Singh Longowal. He resigned from the leadership of the Akali Dal, and it is clear that the extremists are now in a position of even greater ascendancy.
The challenges facing Rajiv Gandhi are thus even more serious now.
His government has come under increasing criticism for its inability to control escalating caste violence in western Gujarat, which has claimed 113 lives since the middle of March.
But for the untested Gandhi, the breakdown of security in New Delhi and the rise of Sikh terrorism again is a far more severe political setback.
And there is already mounting resentment among Hindus over the political concessions which Gandhi has made to the Sikhs -- including the ordering of a judicial inquiry into the massive unrest that followed Mrs. Gandhi's murder.
The renewed violence will make it almost impossible for any additional concessions to be made.
With the Indian Army called out, as it has been on more than 100 occasions in various parts of India during the past year, there was growing concern that it might once again be fully deployed throughout the Punjab, further alienating an already bitter Sikh community living on the critical border with Pakistan.
Border units in both the Punjab and the sensitive state of Jammu and Kashmir are now on highest alert, intelligence sources said. In Kashmir, they have been given orders to intercept any Sikhs attempting to enter the state, where it is widely believed that the Sikh extremists run a network of secret hideouts and training camps.
Similarly, security arrangements at Kashmir's three airports have been tightened dramatically to prevent hijackings.
And, although no evidence was provided, Indian intelligence sources suggested on the weekend that the militant bombers were operating under a unified command and, given the sophistication of the explosions, ``some of the terrorists were foreign trained.''