Police sifted through bombed train compartments and Mumbai residents went from hospital to hospital in search of missing relatives after the second-largest terror attack in India's recent history on Tuesday.
No one has claimed responsibility for the July 11 multiple bomb blasts, called 7/11 by news networks. But initial evidence points to the Pakistan-based terror group Lashkar-e Tayyaba and the India-based Students Islamic Movement of India, an organization that has been banned for its alleged terror activities.
The blasts in Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay, come at a time of increasingly warm relations between India and Pakistan, two rival nuclear states that have fought four wars in their 57-year history.
Peace talks between India and Pakistan, begun in 2004, were due to resume this month, and security analysts now speculate that these blasts were intended to disrupt talks, or to punish India for its deepening US alliance. But now, as Indians struggle to understand why this attack has come at this time, the big question will be how India responds and what impact this has on peace and the continued economic growth of the region.
"Pakistan is a terrorist state; the only thing to do is neutralize it," says Ajai Sahni, director of the Institute of Conflict Management, a private think tank in New Delhi focusing on regional security. "India must give Pakistan an existential choice, between dismantling all the terrorist organizations on its soil and its continuation as a nation. After 9/11, the US told Pakistan that either you join us or become one of the states that we bomb. We have to inflict costs."
Under pressure to take aggressive action, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has thus far called for calm, and promised punishment for whoever is found to be responsible. "These elements have not yet understood that we Indians can stand united, that we will stand united," he said in a national address.
Pakistan quickly condemned the attacks as well. "Terrorism is a bane of our times and it must be condemned, rejected, and countered effectively and comprehensively," a foreign ministry spokesman said.
Across Mumbai, India's commercial capital of 16 million people, life returned to a kind of normalcy, as citizens struggled to make sense of a senseless tragedy.
"The bomb blasts were aimed to divide the nation," says Javed Akhtar, a lyricist in Mumbai's movie industry, standing outside Bhabha Hospital. "What kind of [inhuman] people kill other fellow human beings?"
The eight blasts occurred during the peak evening rush hour, at a time when Mumbai's railways are jam-packed with office workers heading home to the suburbs. The blasts claimed 200 lives thus far, and wounded more than 700.
Police say the bombs were made of high-intensity RDX explosives. The attacks mirrored the commuter train blasts in Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005, which killed 191 and 52 respectively. Unlike the London blasts, which were conducted by suicide bombers, the attackers in Mumbai left behind bombs with timing devices, apparently packed in nondescript luggage or packages on the crowded trains.
"It's painful looking through dead bodies," said Sagar Vyapari, a young boy who was looking for his missing father at Bhabha Hospital. "I'm tired searching from one hospital to another."
With water and biscuits by his bed, Bhupendra Joshi, one of the few patients left in the ward, is looking forward to going home after foot surgery Friday. He was injured jumping from his train compartment after hearing an explosion.
Although the commuter traffic was slightly lower than usual Wednesday, trains were running – and many of them chockablock. "There's no point being scared," said Archana Shelar, a student who was about to board a local train to get to her IT class. "There is no other affordable conveyance besides local trains in Mumbai."
The blasts on Tuesday were highly coordinated, but they were not the first such attack on India, nor the largest. In 1993, serial blasts on commuter trains and at the Bombay Stock Exchange killed 250 people.
Suspicion almost immediately turned to the Pakistan-based group Lashkar-e Tayyaba, a militant group organized at a religious seminary in Muridke, near the city of Lahore. The group denied any role in what it called "inhuman and barbaric acts." But Indian intelligence agencies told Indian television station NDTV that a Lashkar activist captured in Kashmir revealed the plan to target Mumbai as recently as June 30.
"This is Lashkar-e Tayyaba and Jaish-e Mohammad's handiwork," says Anil Kamboj, an expert on terrorist groups at the Institute of Defense Studies and Analysis in New Delhi.
At least 32 Lashkar activists have been arrested in the state of Maharashtra (which includes Mumbai) by Indian police over the past four months with increasing amounts of RDX explosives in their possession, and Mr. Kamboj says there were clear signs that Lashkar was preparing for something big.
"There were peace talks going on and these groups don't want those talks to progress," says Kamboj. "They operate in very small cells of five to 10 people. And they have entered deep inside India, in Bangalore, in Mumbai, in Delhi. They have been able to establish linkages inside the country, maybe local people are helping them or they have people who have infiltrated before."
After the US listed Lashkar as a terrorist organization in 2001, Lashkar closed its doors, allegedly renamed itself Jamat-ud-Dawa, and moved its operational base to the city of Muzaffarabad, in the Pakistani-controlled section of Kashmir.
Sharing the ideology of Al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden, the privately-funded Lashkar may receive training or inspiration from bin Laden's terror group. But Lashkar's main motivations are local issues such as the ongoing rivalry between the Pakistan and India and their dispute over the territory of Jammu and Kashmir.
"These are extremist Islamist groups," says Sahni. "Lashkar-e Tayyaba, Jaish-e Mohammad, and Harkatul Mujahideen have all declared their allegiance to bin Laden and his International Islamic Front. Where are they based? Pakistan. Where is the chief of Lashkar-e Tayyaba, Hafiz Mohammad Sayid? He's in Pakistan."