Indian Army recruits from the High Altitude Warfare School practice at the ski resort of Gulmarg, close to the defacto border that divides Kashmir between India and Pakistan.
Credit: Tauseef Mustafa

NEW DELHI, India — India and Pakistan would be hard-pressed to boast of many benefits from their decades-long conflict.

Up to one million people died in Hindu-Muslim clashes when British India was divided to create both countries in 1947. The nuclear arms race that followed would end human civilization, experts say, if even a handful of the region’s 200 warheads were used.

Bleak as that prospect is, this week the upside of the strife is undeniable for Nadeem Iqbal.

A havaldar (or sergeant) in the Jammu and Kashmir Light Infantry, Nadeem would never have been at the Sochi 2014 Winter Games without India’s huge military investment in the Himalaya and Hindu Kush mountains.

The mountains form part of the Line of Control that marks the effective border in Kashmir, the Muslim-dominated state which is the focus of the nations’ dispute and was once described by Mughal emperor Jahangir as "Heaven on Earth."

A year after completing their first successful nuclear test, Pakistan attacked the Indian-held Siachen glacier in the Kashmiri district of Kargil in 1999.

The three-month Kargil conflict produced grim fighting at altitudes of 18,000 feet, where temperatures drop to -90 degrees Fahrenheit.

Although Indian soldiers eventually pushed the Pakistanis off the glacier, it cost nearly 1,000 lives and 2,000 casualties.

Afterward, India increased its defense budget by $3 billion to $13.4 billion, and decided to keep a permanent presence on the Siachen glacier.

Thousands of soldiers are trained every year at the High Altitude Warfare School (HAWS) in Gulmarg, a village in Kashmir that’s a hub of India’s snow sports industry.

Nadeem, 30, is a native of Kashmir, but he had never tried on skis before joining the Jammu and Kashmir Light Infantry in 2004.

“It was a very new feeling for me. It felt good,” he told GlobalPost through a translator. “First we do alpine skiing. After that it’s long-distance training.”

He is the third Indian to compete in Olympic cross-country ski events. His two predecessors were also trained at HAWS: Tashi Lundup, who finished 83rd in the 15km race in 2010, and Bahadur Gupta, who came in 78th in the men’s sprint in 2006 and is Nadeem’s coach in Sochi.

India's mountainous north has some of the world’s most rugged terrain, and HAWS is highly-regarded by other countries’ armed forces. The seven-week basic training and four-week advanced courses are attended by soldiers from all over the world, including US forces fighting in the mountains of Afghanistan and Russians about to be deployed in Chechnya.

“Quite a few foreigners have been visiting us,” Nadeem said. “There was recently a group from Norway” — the historic cradle of Nordic skiing. “There are lots of new techniques that the instructors taught them.”

In addition to skiing — part of the “ice craft” curriculum that teaches soldiers how to travel through snow — HAWS also covers rock climbing and tests the soldiers’ ability to cope with the physical challenge of operating at high altitude.

Naturally, HAWS has some competition.

The Pakistan Army set up its own Army High Altitude School in Rattu, which has a similar training program, but also offers James Bond-style “combat skiing” and target practice while rappelling down a cliff face.

The snow arms race between the two countries is unlikely to escalate further, according to Dr. Smruti Pattanaik, a research fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in New Delhi.

Although there are sporadic outbreaks of firing across the Line of Control — the “ceasefire” border between Indian and Pakistani forces in Kashmir — the hostilities between the two countries have changed, she said.

“I don’t see a direct conflict as likely to happen. The tension between India and Pakistan is now more about terrorism,” she said, referring to the Mumbai terror attacks of 2008 and several dozen other incidents around India. “There is a strong belief in India that terrorist activities are sponsored by Pakistan, and this is now no longer confined to Kashmir only. So tension yes, war no.”

Yet there is no sign that India is likely to withdraw significant numbers of troops from Siachen, either.

“At the Kargil conflict, India was taken by surprise because in the winter generally nobody occupied Siachen,” Pattanaik explained. “India would not want to be taken by surprise again. Kargil showed that it is very difficult to dislodge troops from the peaks. And Siachen is strategically very important because it is also close to the Chinese border.”

What may help is continuing cultural contact between the two countries, Pattanaik said. Pakistani actors work in Bollywood, and the national teams meet on the cricket and hockey fields.

In fact, the next installment of the Indo-Pak conflict may come in Sochi.

The giant slalom ski race will feature India’s only alpine skier, Himanshu Thakur, a 20-year-old student from Manali in Himachal Pradesh.

He will ski against Muhammad Karim, a 19-year-old from a small village in the Gilgit-Baltistan region, who is backed by the Pakistan Air Force.

Neither is a favorite to win a medal, but the two young men have met regularly during qualification races.

The last time around, at Shemshak in Iran on Jan. 15, Karim came in tenth, two places higher than Himanshu.

The rivalry will continue, in Sochi.

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