On the evening of August 1, 1928, Rajendra Prasad arrived with two locals at a hall in the Austrian city of Graz to address a peace gathering. Inside the mood was frosty.

“As we entered the hall, people started looking at me,” Prasad wrote years later in his autobiography. “Someone asked me if I would speak in German and I replied that I knew only English.”

Prasad had been invited to Graz by one Dr Standenath, a lecturer at a local medical college who had exchanged letters with Mahatma Gandhi. Two days earlier, he had delivered a talk at an anti-war conference in Santagsburg that had received a lot of attention because of his closeness to Gandhi.

In Graz, barely had Prasad and his companions “reached the centre of the hall when the silence was broken by shouts,” he recalled. “My hosts told me that they were caused by the people who opposed the anti-war propaganda. We went up to the dais and Dr Standenath tried to open the exit door, which was bolted, when we were all of a sudden set upon by a score of men attacking us with their bare fists.”

He went on: “My hosts placed themselves between me and the assailants, receiving most of the blows on themselves. The assailants then broke the chairs which were on the dais and began to use the broken fragments to assault us with renewed vigour. I was injured on the head and was at a loss to know why I was the object of their violent attention.”

The “violent anarchists” mistook him for another Indian with the same surname, according to an article in Searchlight, an English language newspaper published in Patna, on August 28. The other Prasad was also supposed to speak at the venue.

“I jumped on to the floor and my hosts followed me,” Prasad wrote in his autobiography. “The attack ceased…We retreated towards the entrance through silent spectators. Only one woman got up and followed us. Outside she spoke to Dr Standenath, consoling us.”

“Profusely bleeding,” they went to Dr Standenath’s home. “The doctor dressed my wounds and bandaged my head, treated his wife and then attended to himself,” Prasad wrote. “They spoke very little English and were not able to express themselves well.”

Searchlight praised the doctor and his wife for their heroics. “These friends – the lady and her husband, who, by the way, happened to be admirers of Mahatma Gandhi and who risked their own lives to save his, deserve the utmost gratitude of the people of this province – nay of the country at large,” the newspaper said.

The assault at Graz was one of two incidents that tainted an otherwise happy summer for Prasad in Europe, where he gained popularity as a peace activist. (The other was the loss of a companion to a freak road accident in London.)

Mahatma’s representative

Europe in the late 1920s was a major battleground for competing ideologies, with violence becoming a means for their followers to seize power. Communism was firmly entrenched in the Soviet Union, while in Italy, Fascists went to the extent of abolishing parliamentary elections. The Nazi Party performed poorly in the 1928 German elections, but began to gain popularity in the rural areas. Austria, which was reduced from a major empire to a small republic after the First World War, witnessed constant strife between Left and Right wing groups.

The memory and bitterness of the First World War were still fresh and an increasing number of political parties in Europe were speaking of waging war to settle scores. It was at this time that several peace movements began to sprout in the continent.

In late August 1928, the first World Youth Peace Congress was held at Camp Eerde in the Netherlands, with 450 delegates taking part from around the world. To toast to peace, their beverage of choice was milk.

By that time, Gandhi had earned a reputation as an apostle of peace and his methods of non-violent resistance to power had gained admirers around Europe. He was invited to speak to the gathering in Holland but had to pass because he was busy preparing for the All-Parties Conference, where the concept of dominion status and self-rule for India was up for discussion. Gandhi, who supported the peace congress in Europe, asked Prasad to go on his behalf.

Prasad happened to be in London at the time to assist the counsel of the Dumraon ruler in his capacity as a lawyer. From the British capital, he went to Austria for the Santagsburg and Graz events. And after that, since he had time before his return voyage to India from Marseilles, he decided to attend the peace congress in Holland.

The congress had many delegates from the United States and received coverage in the American press. “It was agreed generally that imperialism must be abolished if permanent peace is to be accomplished,” the Los Angeles Times said in a report from Camp Eerde on August 25. “Speakers from India, China, Indonesia, Mexico and Africa explained the effects of imperialism and emphasized the hardships which it created for the youth of their countries and for any kind of peace work. Their arguments were supported by representatives of Poland, France, United States, Great Britain, Italy, Holland and Austria and by Communist representatives, while a member of the English delegation also explained the present imperialist policy.”

At a time when racist rhetoric was commonplace in European society, the delegates at the conference unanimously expressed support for the principle of race equality.

Prasad was one of the stars at the event. During his speech, he read out a telegram from Gandhi in which the Mahatma expressed best wishes for the conference’s success. Prasad told the attendees that non-violence was necessary to achieve political goals. “Violence can only provoke counter-violence,” he explained. “Only when we turn aside from violence can we make the strongest appeal to the best in humanity. One must not, however, think of it as ‘pacivity’ for active life is the strongest force in the world.”

While Prasad was preparing to leave for India after the conference and had put the events of Graz behind him, the violence in Austria was still a major talking point back home.

Rumours in Bihar

Searchlight first published an article about the assault on August 22, but did not share many details. Gandhi meanwhile came to know about the incident and immediately sent a telegram to Prasad.

News of the attack created panic in his native Bihar, where government officials approached the Foreign and Political Department of the government of India.

“From the newspaper articles, it appeared as if the assault by Fascists was in particular engineered against Mr Rajendra alone, but this does not appear to be so from S/S telegram under consideration,” the department wrote in a memo. “The fact is that Mr Rajendra received an injury only casually in this disturbance caused by the opponents in the meeting where several others were also hurt.”

As rumours rippled across Bihar, Prasad’s party sent a telegram to the source of the panic, Searchlight, which published it on August 26. “Slight injury in hand. Rajendra Babu perfectly well. Gone with Rai Bahadur Germany. Party leaving Marseilles 31st for India,” it read.

An Indian enquiry into the episode lasted nearly a month. The Viceroy of India, Lord Irwin, wrote to William Peel, Secretary of State for India in London, and received in reply an unambiguous message. “His Majesty’s Minister, Vienna, was informed by Austrian Government that on 1st August meeting summoned by Graz branch of Union of opponents of War service was attended by certain foreign delegates, including British subjects Runham Brown and Rajendra,” Peel wrote to Irwin. “During disturbance caused by opponents, several persons were slightly injured including Rajendra; police cleared hall thereby preventing further disturbance.”

The same message was conveyed by the Foreign and Political Department to the chief secretary of the government of Bihar and Orissa. With official confirmation from the bureaucracy, news appeared in the Hindi media that Prasad was fine and was on his way back to India.

Prasad continued to play an important role in India’s freedom struggle after returning from Europe. When India attained independence, he became its first agriculture minister, a role he held for less than half a year. He was elected as the first president of India in 1950 and held the position for 12 years before retiring.

Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer, primarily based in Mumbai. His Twitter handle is @ajaykamalakaran.