Disclaimer: I see Kashmir as a part of India as a geographic reality. If it becomes free, I will see it as free. I refuse to cater to bullshit that treats Kashmir as a separate country before it becomes one. This goes for separatists who don't like me calling Kashmiris Indian and this goes for nationalists who don't understand why I put a high priority on the rights of Kashmiris in Kashmir. For me Kashmir is India, rights of Kashmiris are rights of Indians, and that is that.
I believe Kashmir must have the right to determine its destiny - including making horrendous mistakes (which is how I see the separatist cause) if they are determined to do so.
As far as my opinion goes (not that anyone is asking) a free Kashmir is a myth and if Kashmir separates from India without war, it will either be a part of Pakistan or worse a puppet government of Pakistan (think Taliban conquest of Afghanistan), which will hardly be the nirvana separatists are peddling it to be. Kashmiris as puppets caught between the separatists and the state (and the separatists are winning). Taken to its logical conclusion, Kashmir will eventually likely be a part of China as their fee to Pakistan for safe passage through Balochistan on their way to the sea. That is the only way Kashmir can exit India through methods they are currently using.
India is paranoid and resistant to giving Kashmir any leeway for fear of losing it altogether, replacing a courageous political solution with the application of force to impose an indefinite limbo. This is not good for Kashmiris and it is not good for the Army either. You simply cannot turn a region into a massive prison and then also expect there will be no jail breaks. Nor can you expect an Army to live among people and have enemies among them. They are not police. Not in function, not in training and not locals themselves. Soldiers will break and kill innocents and brothers-in-arms and commit suicide. People will get cabin fever and make desperate attempts for freedom that have no sanity to them.
What Kashmiris need to realize is that India and Pakistan got their freedom not through struggle, but through the collapse of the British Empire. India may be on the way to collapse, looking at national data on many fronts, but that collapse is unlikely to be fast enough to force India to give up Kashmir in the near future. All the protesting is only going to keep the state tightening controls at every opportunity to make it harder to defy the state, increasing the claustrophobia.
The separatists want this prison so that their demand for separation is not forgotten. The Indian state wants this prison for control. The Army wants this prison to use the jail breaks to keep AFSPA alive (and get rewards for dead militants), since they too do not have the option of exiting. The only person who doesn't want Kashmir imprisoned is the Kashmiri who wants freedom.
Kashmiris are shown the carrot of a free Kashmir where no bad things will happen and the stick of human rights abuse and an emotional frenzy triggers a highly predictable cycle of protests, abuses and more imprisonment. I wouldn't be surprised if corrupt people in the Indian Army were paid by separatists to kill a few people to keep people protesting. Rewards for Army, rewards for separatists.
There are things India needs to do. The first being to stop coddling/fearing the Army as if they cannot or will not do their jobs without impunity for a few crimes on the side. More importantly, India needs to create opportunities for freedom for Kashmir. How can Kashmiris experience more of life doing what they want. There need to be protocols that recognize the unrealistic duration of time they have been living with heavy security and extra efforts to create protocols that don't confuse bullying with security.
Kashmiris need to realize that they are being used. There is no Nirvana. There is no freedom to be had like this, only a well designed prison. A peaceful Kashmir suits no one except them. Kashmiris need to engage more with their present than their past. However much they avenge the past, it cannot change. The need is to work on their present and ensure a better future, which conflict cannot provide. To refuse to risk life and limb and sanity in hate and conflict. Do all protests have to stop? No. But the protest must have a goal achievable by protest. If you must face a gun, then the need is to face it in order to secure something for yourself. Random anger spilling on the streets is a very high risk for no gain and plenty loss.
Should the dream of a free Kashmir be given up? I'd like to say yes, but Kashmiris are not asking me. In my view, if Kashmiris really want freedom, then the best way would be for separatists to enter politics and contest elections on the promise of a plebiscite. Even Indian freedom fighters participated in government in the British Raj, not just protested. Educated professionals, industry, prosperity, accountable leaders who believe in their freedom to take over. If "all" Kashmiris want freedom, it ought to be a breeze to get elected and then for the elected leaders to negotiate with India for a plebiscite, which kind of makes it difficult to say that the ones wanting to separate are a minority, which is how it appears at the moment.
If India refuses, such an elected leader could even appeal to the UN for intervention with very high credibility through the very nature of being elected. So far, even if the claims of Army forcing people to vote were true, there seems to be no indication that people wanted a pro-freedom government - even as a compromise. If separatists campaigned and won on the promise of a plebiscite, it would be clear and as good as a plebiscite on the need for a plebiscite, so to say. It would be something no one could dispute. This could help bring about a new plebiscite, even if Pakistan does not fulfill its original deal on PoK.
This will also force separatists to put their money where their mouth is instead conning Kashmiris for an unending propaganda war. It will prove the truth or lie of the claim that "All Kashmiris want freedom". It will also give the elected state government a lot of leverage during negotiations with the center on the AFSPA and many other things. A shift from arbitrary claims of support to democratic representation. Not to mention it would force India to address human rights issues on an urgent basis if they want the people to keep believing in them. More importantly, it will be an irreversible step toward solving the problem.
On the other hand, I think if it comes to a plebiscite, there should be an agreement before the plebiscite on whether it should be held for all of J&K state (which reduces the chances of separation) or for Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh separately, with each choosing their destiny. Finally, the result of the plebiscite, if it happens or the failure to prove its need should be the end of the conflict.
All that said, freedom means the right to choose for yourself, even if the choice is a horrendous mistake. You simply cannot imprison people "for their good" and call it a good thing.
What about the Pandits?
What about them? They too should be a part of this to whatever extent they wish. It is not like the way we are proceeding is easy for them to return. No matter how unjust it is, it is impossible to move the clock back. It has to move forward. It is not even as if Kashmiri Musims are safe either. There will be a point, whether as part of India or free that they will have to decide if the risk of return is worth the reward of it. Kashmir is hardly likely to be completely safe in the near future.
Freedom, in my view is less about the name of the country you belong to, and more about if you can live freely. Content, happy people cannot be bothered to come out on the street and protest, whether in India or free. Indian government should stop this colonization method they use. Not just in Kashmir. People are dropping out of believing the state all over the country. Be it militant movements or Maoists or non-violent protests or anti-project movements or anti-rape protests or anti-corruption protests or whatever. The belief of Indians that the state can be trusted to rule them is at an all time low. India has to start listening to people and to serve them instead of control them, and Kashmir is as good a place to start as any.
I don't think Kashmiris can be free without letting go of hostility however much injustice causes it. Even if India set them free right now, anarchists are not suddenly going to become creators. All it would be is a vacuum for the biggest gun to claim as their property and a new cycle of the same story.
Protests are an expression of anger. Freedom has to be a strategy.