When discussing the attitude that the Government of India should take to the Hindu Child Marriage Restraint Bill, proposed by Rai Sahib Harbilas Sarda in February 1927, Home Member Sir James Crerar commented that they should regulate child marriage through a Government measure, rather than a Private Member's Bill, because ‘Governments are invariably held responsible in the end for all legislation, whether they have promoted it themselves or merely acquiesced in it. If any odium is incurred it will inevitably fall on the Government and we may as well have the merit’. Crerar's remarks epitomize the ambivalent relationship between colonial state and social reform in early twentieth century India, encapsulating both the desire to legitimize imperialism through ‘improvement’, and the need to reconcile, and even subordinate, reformist projects to political expediencies. Such tensions between justificatory discourses and pragmatic considerations shaped the colonial state's engagement with social reform in the nationalist era; Sarda's Bill existed at an ideological intersection between emergent discourses of Indian nationalism, colonialism as ‘civilizing mission’ and the survival strategies of a colonial state under growing social and political pressure. Its history reflects the ambivalent role of the colonial state as it attempted to mediate impulses for and against reform, from Indian society, the international community and its own regional representatives. The result was a more complex colonial engagement with social change than is usually allowed in the dichotomy of reform or reaction that epitomizes traditional and revisionist accounts respectively.